Prologue: Must Try Harder
Life is interminably boring at times. Seconds become minutes, minutes hours, hours days, days weeks, weeks months, months years, years a lifetime. Most of us will spend our lives making plans or rueing the plans we never went through with. As I approach the age of thirty, I find myself beginning to settle down, despite my best efforts. Living away from my parents has consumed most of my disposable income. I’m entrenched enough in my job that the only foreseeable changes of employment are within Aer Lingus. I worry about bills and do all my own ironing. In short, I have been afflicted with the malaise of middle class life.
As most people who know me are aware, travel has been something of a passion of mine. In 2012 I spent seven weeks abroad, 2013 I managed nine. 2014, lamentably, was quieter. My lifestyle is expensive. Assembling the kind of war chest necessary for holidays requires more overtime than my indolence allows. So it is that my holidaying last year consisted of a few days in Lanzarote, New York, Vienna, and San Francisco, along with a couple of jaunts within Ireland. Perhaps, by the standards of ordinary folks, this might seem adequate, but I have loftier ambitions. There are still twelve empty pages in my passport that I have designs on filling before it expires in 2016. Oh, there were plans. Wonderful plans. But somehow, there never seemed to be the money for these. Thrift is not one of my strongest abilities.
2015 was setting up to be more of the same. Money looked to be tight, and plans were few and far between. In the runup to Christmas 2014, my main concern was making it through the holiday season without running up a major credit card debt. Then fate intervened. A good run at Christmas Eve poker covered most of my expenses. Then I got some unexpected back pay. Finally, Aer Lingus thoughtfully gave me two thousand euro for signing away my entitlements to a pension scheme I wasn’t involved in anyway. Suddenly a holiday was possible again.
Next on the agenda was getting time off. I had a week’s leave in February for some reason, and now it was a matter of calling in all the days I had painstakingly worked up over the previous few years. As February dawned I had all but covered the requisite time off, or so I hoped. Now for an itinerary.
I pride myself on my insensitivity. I am the man who makes jokes about anything, be it terrorist attacks, genocide, or even the death of Bambi’s mother. And yet, in late November, I was almost reduced to tears at the sight of my parents discovering that my brother Tim had come back from Australia without them knowing and (thanks in part to my machinations) surprised them in the family home after two years away. Beautiful stuff. Aside from the initial reunion and my Father’s 70th, I had kept a bit of a distance, largely through work commitments. In other words, I had effectively managed to miss my brother’s trip home, and that needed to be rectified. Ergo Melbourne was always going to be my first port of call.
Five days before I left, I made (for me) a pretty extraordinary decision: I would go full fare. There were a few reasons for this. Getting into Australia on standby is messy at the best of times. Even when a flight isn’t fully booked, there are a host of other standby passengers who flock to the flight that gives them the best chance of getting out. Then there’s the fact that most carriers heavily oversell their flights. This causes two problems. Firstly, it means that merely checking as to whether there are tickets available for sale is not a great indicator of whether there are seats for those tickets. Secondly, when a carrier does get caught in an oversales position, it will then attempt to rebook those passengers onto alternative flights, which can mean a flurry of late bookings for flights.
Then of course there is the wonder that is Skyscanner, which informed me that a confirmed ticket Dublin-London-Kuala Lumpur-Melbourne would only set me back €50 more than a standby ticket on the same route, and €200 more than a ticket through the Middle East, which I tend to avoid as it’s an awkward place to hang around waiting to get out on a flight. Granted, it was with Malaysia Airlines, who have had a bad year, but hey, 363 out of 365 days without a fatal accident still translates into good odds. Also, Malaysia are one of the worst offenders in the oversales department. If one is on a full fare ticket, well dressed, and willing to accept a modicum of flexibility (as all standby passengers are anyway), oversales can be used to one’s advantage in a big way. One Denied Boarding Compensation cheque would more than cover the cost of my flight. And gate agents are forever searching for well dressed types to upgrade when economy is oversold. So my jacket made a quick trip to the dry cleaners, and I brought my staff ID with me too, just in case it could be leveraged into a better seat.
On account of being a confirmed passenger, I had the luxury of checking in online. For an obsessive-compulsive type like me, this is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it eliminates a headache and allows me the best possible seat selection. The issue is that I approach seat selection with near-scientific exactitude. Picking a seat on the flight to Kuala Lumpur took me twenty minutes and repeated examinations of Seatguru.com. Then I tried checking in for the Melbourne leg, only to discover it was blocking me for some reason. I eventually traced the problem to the fact that, in my infinite carelessness, I had put the wrong date of birth in for my Australian e-visa. A frantic call to Immigration in Canberra rectified this, albeit at the cost of making me look like a complete embarrassment. I mitigated this somewhat by saying I was calling on behalf of Aer Lingus for someone else, and managed to get through the conversation talking about myself in the third person.
As this trip was even more ad-hoc than my usual escapades, a lot of things were left till the last minute. I hadn’t even sorted out all my days off till the night before I left, and as for laundry, suffice it to say that some items went into my suitcase without even being properly dried, let alone ironed. Wednesday evening, before I was due to fly out the next morning was a frantic rummage through my apartment in search of anything and everything that could possibly be useful to me. With my flight being at 6:40am, I decided it would be prudent to get an early night. The upshot of this was that I effectively lay in bed till 3am without ever really getting to sleep, and then decided I’d get up and see was there anything else left to do.
There were two last things to sort, and they were somewhat optional. The first was my itinerary. I had booked a flight to Melbourne and a week’s stay in a hotel in St Kilda. I had advised Kevin in New Zealand that I might drop down, and had even booked one night in Nelson for the Cricket World Cup (A happy coincidence, it turns out that at some point I set up an account with Hotels.com that was accumulating frequent flyer miles from my globetrotting, and now I had a chance to redeem it for a free night). Beyond that, apart from a vague plan to be in the States at the start of March, things were somewhat up in the air. Oh well, that could all be sorted at some unspecified future point.
Secondly, and more importantly, was whether I would attach a theme to this trip. Given the sheer incoherence of my plans, I like to have an overarching motif to attach to whatever random trip I take. After all, without some sort of linkage, I would simply be embarking on several random trips that happened to be more expensive than doing them separately and occur consecutively. In 2012 I had attempted to circumnavigate the globe in three weeks and down eighty different beers in the process. I failed, not on account of lack of trying, but because in a stand of principle I refused to allow light beer to be counted, which meant that in Chicago O’Hare Airport I decided to leave it at seventy-seven. The next year, when I undertook a similar trip, I declined to renew the challenge. At the time I was suffering from an abdominal pain that I was vaguely worried that was the early stages of cirrhosis, so I decided that committing to drinking myself halfway to death on an already potentially dodgy liver might be a bad idea. Thankfully, these pains disappeared some time ago. While it is entirely possible that inflamed liver tissue has turned into necrotic liver tissue, I prefer to take the positive view that, like any other part of my body, constant exercise has got my liver to a peak of physical fitness. Game on.
At about 3am on Thursday, February 5th, 2015, the day I was due to fly out, I went to my fridge to see if anything in it could be construed as breakfast. I habitually keep so little food in my apartment that were Bob Geldof to see it he would be working on a charity single on my behalf, and this occasion was no different. The larder was bare, barring a block of butter and a can of Tennent’s. After some agonising, I decided that drinking the can was preferable to taking a spoon to the butter. However, what kind of person drinks a can of Tennent’s at 3am, on their own, in their night gear, on an empty stomach, and having just gotten out of bed? In my mental gymnastics, I determined that the best way to justify this was to count it as part of the holiday. Then it occurred to me to take another crack at downing eighty different beers. This time I would do it. For a start, I had a full month, rather than the three weeks of my previous attempt. I have also matured in my attitude to alcohol. I can now look down the barrel of an eighteen hour binge secure in the knowledge that I can pace myself appropriately and never go over the edge, or at least, not often. Most importantly, the market has caught up with my slightly exotic tastes in beer. The average bar in a developed country now stocks twice as many varieties of beer as it did five years back.
Anyway, by the time I had rationalised this, I had finished the can, and there was a cab waiting outside to take me to Dublin Airport.
I: A Genius, But a Lazy Shite
I generally try to avoid Heathrow. It’s too busy, for a start. With the runway, airfield and terminal facilities perpetually bursting at the seams, one gets all sorts of absurd delays, both with flights and navigating the airport. It’s also too big. Aircraft and terminals are squirrelled away all over the place, with the result that most of the inter-terminal transfers are handled by a bus. Makes sense, but it just adds another layer of complexity to the whole business. Then there’s the taxes and charges. Secure in its position as the premier transatlantic business hub, Heathrow Holdings and the British government have seen fit to extort absurd amounts of money in ancillary charges from the average traveller. 85% of my (admittedly cheap) ticket costs were taxes and charges, mostly from Heathrow. All in all, not my favourite place in the world.
Funny thing. I work in Aer Lingus checkin, among other things. I advise passengers on the best way of connecting through airports across the world, despite the fact that I am only passing on secondhand advice. Travelling standby, as I generally do, one rarely transits an airport. I have to go through immigration and retrieve my bag on virtually every occasion. So, odd as it may seem, I was more than a little nervous in Heathrow flight connections. Needlessly, it turns out. It was relatively simple. As of now, whatever lingering sympathy I may have had for passengers who miss their onwards connections in Heathrow is extirpated. As might be inferred from this paragraph, I made it from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4 without incident.
Having ascertained that I wasn’t going to be upgraded, I was now reliant on forward planning plus clever reactions to ensure I got the optimal seat. In the absence of an upgrade, the best possible seat one can get is a seat with an empty seat beside it. As has been already mentioned, I had spent a considerable amount of time on Malaysia’s site trying to work out how best to ensure this, and upon boarding the flight I was delighted to discover that it had paid off. There was a vacant seat between me and the couple on the other side. Now to ensure it remained mine. I had procured a large amount of books for my trip. Among them was a biography of WWII German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, which I left on the empty seat. Its cover was emblazoned with a large Swastika. There can be few better ways of deterring encroachments on one’s personal space than by convincing people you are a Nazi. As a side benefit, Malaysia have free drink and obsequious cabin crew. Time to get as drunk as an uncle at a Moldovan wedding….
There are a few ways to approach a long haul flight. One can see it as a penance, and spend the duration complaining to all and sundry about the risks of Deep Vein Thrombosis. Or one can view it objectively, as a necessary method in connecting people. Finally, one can take my view. It’s an open bar that gets you from one part of the world to another. Bring a few good books, some electronic entertainment, and start knocking back the drinks. There is, however one minor problem on a flight of this length. There is a very real possibility of beer running out. This has happened to me on no fewer than four occasions. This time it wasn’t quite so bad, I thought. I was on an Airbus A380, the biggest airliner on the planet, and it wasn’t configured to max out the seats. There should be enough catering facilities to satisfy everyone. One small hitch. All Malaysia stocked were Carlsberg and Tiger, neither of which I’m particularly fond of. Deeming Tiger to be the lesser of two evils, I began what I hoped was to be one of my more epic drinking binges. Then disaster struck. About eight hours into the flight, they ran out of Tiger. In desperation, I switched to Carlsberg, only for that to run out three hours later, meaning that I was somewhere over the Bay of Bengal and at least five hundred miles and thirty-eight thousand feet from the nearest place where I could acquire a beer. Not that it mattered overmuch. I had at this point been up for twenty-two hours, and my body took advantage of this lull in drinking to switch off for the last two hours before we landed in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia, I have found, is a funny country. The people are helpful to the point of being nearly servile. English is commonly spoken, and spoken better than most places. Women in headscarves mingle freely with women in miniskirts. Against this must be set some strange neuroses. While sitting in a cafe in the airport I started listening to the radio channel they were playing. It opened with an advertisement by a “well-known TV personality” berating an anonymous other personality for being late, followed by a stern lecture on the importance of punctuality. They then went on, in the middle of February, to play 1984 US Christmas Number One: USA For Africa: We are the World, widely considered to be one of the worst songs ever written. This was followed by another public service announcement, this one about how it’s sometimes necessary to admit to being wrong. No wonder the country is so servile and efficient. Radio propaganda is encouraging punctuality and not arguing.
My vague sense of defeat at having to pay full whack for a ticket to Australia was largely dispelled upon boarding the Melbourne flight, which was very obviously completely full. No upgrade here, either, then, but had I travelled on a standby ticket, I wouldn’t be getting on at all. Oh well, at least I had the foresight to prerequest an aisle seat, for access to the toilet between drinks. After what I can only describe as an uneventful nine hours, we rolled up on stand in Melbourne.
Traditionally I have had a fraught relationship with security in airports. Travelling to the USA I was always the guy who got taken in for additional screening. This had largely petered out in the past few years, and I have entered Australia three times before without any hassle. This time, however, I had clearly won the reverse lottery. Immediately after going through immigration I found myself being pursued by an official, who took a second glance at my passport. Thinking nothing of it, I retrieved my bag and headed through to Customs. At this point I was directed into a completely different area than everyone else and was advised that my belongings were to be searched. First two questions were easy. Did I have explosives? No. Drugs? No. A scan of my baggage confirmed my honesty in these matters. Grand. Then came the tricky one: Did I have any pornography on my laptop?
This was a stickler. My laptop has all manner of things on it. To the best of my knowledge, none of these were explicitly pornographic, but given the amount of times I have moved data from hard drives and older computers, it was not impossible that something smutty from my teenage years had found its way onto the machine. Then there was the question of what constituted pornography. I had a copy of the film Swordfish, which features a topless Halle Berry in a brief scene. Porn? I also had a number of graphic novels, some of which may have depicted people in less than fully clothed situations, but not gratuitously so. In other words, the correct answer to that question was “erm….”. Rather than get into a philosophical discussion as to what constituted pornography, I found it expedient simply to say that I didn’t have any, and gamble that their search through my labyrinthine hard drive would yield nothing incriminating. Turns out my luck held, and after some desultory jokes about my illegal downloading of films in general (luckily, they only saw a tiny proportion of that), I was let go on my way. Tim was there to meet me. Turns out the blighter has a brand new BMW. Might be something to be said for this emigration business after all.
Australia hasn’t changed much. Still the same friendly, laid back attitude to everything. Still the same astronomical prices for everything. Still the same crap WiFi. My Internet addiction has reached the kind of lengths that don’t bear thinking about. Suffice it to say that I go into near convulsions if I don’t get to vent spleen on Facebook at least once every eight hours, and if I don’t have near instant access to the news, I get very uneasy. This need for connectivity was sorely tested when last I was in Melbourne by the fact that my hotel was charging for Wifi access. At least this hotel wasn’t doing so. The problem was that it wasn’t offering Wifi at all. The Esplanade (henceforth the Espy), one of Australia’s best-known venues and a favourite watering hole of mine, didn’t have Wifi either. In fact, it took two days of frantic searching for a pub that did, and even there it was limited to one hour per device, which led to the comical sight of me alternating between my laptop, work Ipad, Kindle, and phone, as each device exhausted its time limit.
In a rather fortunate turn of events, one night’s sleep cured me of most of my jet lag, so Saturday found me ready for a serious session, and in another fortunate turn of events there was a full complement of Six Nations and Premiership on. Only problem was the time difference, and finding somewhere to watch it. This would entail essentially an all-nighter. The first Premiership game wouldn’t start till 1130pm. The optimal place to view these was the Crown casino. Good spot to gamble. Good spot to watch sport. Bad spot to get hammered. The Crown practices that strange idea of “cutting off”, whereby if you get too drunk they stop serving you, a huge break with the Irish tradition of turning a blind eye. Mid afternoon found myself and Tim in the Espy knocking back a couple of jugs of Peroni and a bite to eat, but clearly this couldn’t be kept up indefinitely without risking crashing and burning. Not that I didn’t try. All was going well till about 6am, whereupon whatever jet lag I hadn’t dispensed with came back to haunt me.
During my brief times there I have found St Kilda, where I was staying, to exude a slightly bohemian feel. The population is overwhelmingly young in a district where much of the architecture (particularly on the beachfront) has an old, almost decayed feel to it. It is also, as the locus of much of the recent immigration to Melbourne, extremely cosmopolitan. By an astonishing coincidence, it’s also a great spot for a night out. Tim had to balance commitments to his missus along with a full time job, so I knew I wouldn’t be seeing a lot of him. As a result, I did something I normally find impossible: I relaxed. My hotel was set along Fitzroy Avenue, a nice boulevard lined with pubs, cafes, and a drug rehabilitation clinic/halfway house, which at least added to the street entertainment. I always feld Bethlem Mental Hospital in London (AKA Bedlam) had a wonderfully clever idea in exhibiting some of their more interesting inmates. Few things are more amusing than the right kind of lunatic.
Sunday there was some sort of street festival. I’m always uncertain about these things, just like I’m not sure I like St Patrick’s Day or New Year’s Eve. They have a way of attracting amateur drinkers, who end up drinking more than they can handle, passing out in the street, starting fights, and generally giving us hardened drinkers a bad name. However, in fairness, it was all good natured. The only downside was that the off licenses doubled their prices and imposed sales limits, which exacerbated an already problematic pricing scheme.
Australia may be the most expensive country in the world to get drunk in. If you have never been, it comes as a shock. Expect to pay the equivalent of €8 for a pint in the cities. This would perhaps be bearable except for the fact that off sales are also absurd. $20 is the standard price for six bottles. Perhaps there is the local equivalent of Dutch Gold, but I never saw it. For those of us who find Ireland to be a tough gig for financing an alcohol dependency, rest assured, it could be worse.
Anyway, one day while sitting in the internet bar checking financial news (yes, I genuinely am that sad), I was approached by a middle-aged, very gay individual who repeated the Australian Immigration’s accusation that I was watching pornography, then told me I had a nice smile, and asked me to say something sexy. I was, to put it mildly, somewhat taken aback by this. A few minutes later another gentleman passed me and asked me was I “looking at the filthies”. For some reason the entire country of Australia assumes that the only reason someone would be on the internet in a pub is to get their jollies…
There is an increasing tendency among discount hotels to follow the Ryanair model of absolutely screwing people who fail to read the small print. I narrowly avoided this in my place, noticing the day before I was due to check out that there was a note in my T&C’s that the hotel would wash any dishes that needed washing after I checked out. The price for this service? $75. Sneaky bastards. As far as I can see, the sudden influx of wealth has led to a culture of avarice in the service sector in Australia, and I’m not sure I like it.
There is only so long I can stay in one place, and Melbourne, for all its charms, is no exception. I was also a little behind schedule on the beer project, or rather, I had exhausted most of the low-hanging fruit, and would now need to move somewhere else to continue. New Zealand beckoned.
II: People Must Hate Seeing You at Table Quizzes
A usual rule of thumb for travelling standby is to avoid international sporting events wherever possible. It’s nearly impossible to get onto a flight, and vast amounts of staff are trying to do it. The Cricket World Cup was in full swing in Australia and New Zealand, so this was going to be tight. I had planned this one relatively carefully, in order to maximise my possible wriggle room and give me as many chances as possible to get to Wellington. I left Melbourne for Sydney on Friday. I was due in Nelson on Monday. Figure a day getting from Wellington to Nelson, and I had five possible flights from Sydney to Wellington before I had to panic. The problem with this thesis is while it sounds nice in the abstract, on the ground, knocking back a beer, waiting anxiously to find out whether one is getting on a flight, it’s a bit hairier.
Anyway, I had no problem getting Melbourne to Sydney. Flights every half hour, sooner or later you’re going to get on one. In this case I didn’t even have time for a drink. Straight onto a flight that was already boarding. Grand, although it perhaps made for a more panicked dash to the gate than is normal for me. After possibly the most turbulent hour of my life (for some reason Qantas flights tend to be bouncy), I arrived in the Domestic terminal at Sydney.
Sensible airport design has all terminals as close to each other as possible. Where this is impossible, they generally at least afford passengers a courtesy bus to get from one to the other. Not so Sydney. Unless one is fortunate enough to be a confirmed passenger travelling fon a through reservation, in which case Qantas lay on a bus, one has to get from one terminal to the next (which is the far side of the runways) entirely under their own steam. The only public transport option is the metro, and like everything in Australia, that’s pricey. When eventually I made it across to the Internation terminal and presented myself to checkin, I was listed and told to come back at the last minute. Not a good sign.
It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes, because of the imminence of death. I would say that there are no atheists on standby. When you’re counting on flukes like a revenue passenger’s car breaking down en route to the airport, divine assistance is what you need. And no matter how much one tries to persuade oneself that matters are out of your hands and one should relax, it’s tense. As the song goes, the waiting is the hardest part. When the time came to return to the standby desk, there was a knot of anxious looking faces clustered around. Other standbys. Half nodding acquaintance, even when you don’t know them, you know what they’re going through, and half competition for any seat that might be available. Then the denouement. One staff passenger got on. It wasn’t me. Damn. Ok, time to reassess. This is a temporary setback. I can recover.
In what is a very unusual circumstance for Qantas, the standby desk agent wasn’t in a helpful mood, but I did managed to elicit from her that there were sixteen seats available on the morning flight, with nine listed staff. That’s a grand figure. The odds against it those seats disappearing between then and the morning were slim. Next on the agenda was what to do for sixteen hours. The idea of finding a bar and drinking myself into a stupor was not without its merits. The problem was that the airport bar could close unexpectedly, and then I’d be on my own, with only Sydney Airport’s absurdly slow Wifi to comfort me. No, I would be sensible and arrange accommodation.
In this case I perhaps got overly extravagant, booking a 4-star hotel just outside the airport. That said, it wasn’t particularly expensive, and given the fact that I was due in the airport at 730am the next day, being nearby was a distinct advantage.
I always find it slightly jarring to stay in an upmarket hotel. To be honest, I prefer motel jobbies if only for the price. There’s something about the plushness of a good hotel that unmans my blue collar sensibilities. Even things like having a trouser press in one’s room do not seem to be the sort of thing a leisure traveller like me should bother with. Oh, and there’s a minibar. Minibars are a dangerous temptation, which I duly indulged in. Maybe upmarket hotels aren’t so bad after all, particularly when one has to be up at stupid o’clock to head to the airport, and there’s a shuttle service provided. Next morning I was accepted onto the Wellington flight straight away. Happy days.
I have had a longstanding opinion that children should only be allowed onto aircraft under sedation. My views were borne out by the fact that there were three little terrors seated immediately behind me. The entire flight was a cacophony of incoherent screams. One wonders where they get the energy for it.
My immigration woes continue. All my luggage was X-rayed, and I was subjected to the usual barrage of questions. Obviously society has a prejudice against single, unshaven, dishevelled, foul-smelling drunkards. I can’t for the life of me understand why. The next surprise was the weather. Wellingon isn’t much further south than Melbourne, where the temperature was in the mid-thirties, and it was the Southern Hemisphere summer. However, I would be willing to bet that the weather in Wellington in February was scarce better than that in Dublin in February.
Wellington is an exceptional city for beer drinking, considering its small size. The city centre is relatively compact, and there are about a dozen decent bars in close proximity to each other. I was only going to be there for one night, but it would provide an opportunity to make some serious headway on the project. The only problem was finding my hotel. I knew the name, I knew the street, unfortunately I had forgotten how long Willis Street is. The bus dropped me at a junction somewhere on the midpoint, leaving me with the awkward decision of whether to go left or right. I knew there were a couple of hotels to my left, so that seemed to be the sensible choice. Half a mile later I was having doubts. I was coming to the suburbs, and the road was starting to slope alarmingly uphill, something I am not a fan of. So I assumed I had chosen wrongly and went back, all the while lugging my suitcase. Going back didn’t help. I got to the opposite end of the street. No hotel. Thankfully, Wellington city centre has free wifi, so I popped out the phone. Turns out that it was a hundred yards beyond where I had given up the first time, so for the third time I started slogging back up the street. Finally finding it, I set out to deal with the most important task of the day: my laundry. This was something I should have done a long time beforehand, but procrastination being a speciality of mine and laundry seeming too much like work, I had let it get to the point that I simply had no clean clothes. Thankfully, the hotel (which looked like a converted boarding school or barracks) had one of those industrial type washing machines, which meant I could get it all done in one go.
Anyway, I was due in Nelson in South Island the next day, so I decided to take the ferry, rather than fly. There was no airline flying from Wellington to Nelson that I could get discount rates with, and besides, I felt I could do with a bit of scenery, which the Cook Strait has in spades. Problem was the ferry was going to Picton, which is eighty miles from Nelson, and had an exceptionally well-stocked bar. So of course, I started drinking, forgetting that I would be on a bus for two hours. Then, arriving in Picton, I needed to find a bar for an hour to access Wifi, and lacked the sense to stay dry. Net result was a rather miserable time down the back of the bus from Picton to Nelson, desperately trying to control my bladder.
Having read up on the tour guides for Nelson before I went, the first thing they all said was how compact the city was. Turns out they were lying, as I found out while desperately trying to find my B&B in the pitch black halfway up a mountain while lugging my suitcase along with me. Then when I arrived the lights were out and it took another few minutes to gain entry. Finally to top it off there wasn’t a liquor store for miles, so I had the indignity of going to sleep sober, thankfully I was going to make up for it the next day.
A couple of weeks earlier Kevin Walsh had rang me with an interesting proposition: to attend Ireland’s opening game in the Cricket World Cup against the West Indies. This was what had lured me downto the middle of nowhere on New Zealand’s South Island. Of course, given that the pair of us are only one stooge short of a trio, there were some mishaps before we actually settled down. We had arranged to meet in the car park, unaware that there were in fact two car parks, and had a devil of a time finding each other. Then there was the matter of my suitcase, which I had to bring as I was switching accommodations. For some reason the staff at the Saxton Oval didn’t take kindly to me trying to bring a suitcase into the ground, so we missed the start of the game lugging the damnable thing over to a car belonging to one of Kev’s mates.
Anyway, cricket is a wonderful game to watch live, limited over cricket doubly so. The slow pace means that one can pay only intermittent attention and still keep abreast with what is happening. The weather was ideal, to the point that I had to repeatedly don sunblock. And of course there’s the drinking, which is the most important aspect. The actual match is the background noise to the drinking. We went through a steady stream of Tui lager, eventually amassing a mountain of empty bottles. Tragedy struck when I got sunblock in my eye, which left me in agony for several hours, and also meant that I was sparing with the sunblock for the rest of the day, and I was duly incinerated. While this was going on Ireland won a famous victory, so we were in quite a merry mood when we headed onwards.
First on the agenda was a barbecue at one of Kev’s mates’ places, before heading into Nelson for the evening. We ended up in the same bar as several of the Irish team, who were celebrating a job well done, and subsequently encountered a very drunk Chris Gayle (from the Windies) on the street bemoaning his team’s performance. The only downer was when Kev managed to comprehensively beat me at pool, which is unusual. Rest assured, when I return, vengeance shall be mine.
I do stupid things all the time. Particularly when I’m on holiday. Sometimes I invite it. After all, a good story is a good story, no matter who the butt of it is. I seem to be worse on holiday though. Lack of anything to focus on and constant inebriation is the root cause, I expect. On an extended trip I become particularly bad at remembering what day it is. So it was that the next day I showed up in Nelson Airport to fly to Auckland, only to find I had booked a flight for the previous day. Given my exacting attitude in work and lack of sympathy for those who make that kind of mistakes, it was a serious humiliation, the more so because this was a full fare ticket (Air NZ still refusing to take Aer Lingus staff at ZED rates). I had no choice but to get another ticket, which thankfully wasn’t too extortionate, so the main victim was my pride.
Mistakes beget further mistakes I arrived in Auckland without knowing where my hostel was, or even its name. I knew the street, but that was it. So, on Kev’s advice, I took the bus from the airport to the terminus in Auckland, which was unfortunately at the bottom of a hill. Turns out that a) my hostel was at the top, and b) the bus had passed rather close to it. One more little indignity life chose to inflict on me, I suppose. A happy side effect of this was that I wandered into what turned out to be a genuine Irish bar in search of wifi.
The expat bar is a strange place, but in the best possible way. I had a particular dive I used to frequent during my brief time in Korea teaching English. In a provincial industrial town, it was only natural that the small Western population would find somewhere to congregate together. The best description I could ascribe to the place in Korea was Moe’s Tavern from the Simpsons. The clientele was mostly male, mostly on their own (if one was dating a local, it was unseemly to bring them), and mostly simply out to get as wasted as possible. It was only through good fortune that I happened upon a similar establishment on my first attempt in Auckland. As a side bonus, I found my hostel.
Hostels. To be honest, I thought I had left that kind of thing behind me. I ain’t particularly picky. I have stayed in Palestinian hotels in the West Bank. I’ve stayed in hotels in Monterrey in Mexico where the pop-pop-pop of gunfire is a curious background noise. I’ve stayed in 12-bed dorms in Amsterdam where most of the occupants are loudly trying to lose their virginity. Suffice it to say, I’ve done my share of unsalubrious accommodation. But as I get older, I find myself longing for creature comforts such as a private room and bathroom if possible.
I hadn’t planned on staying in a hostel. Bad luck on my part necessitated it. The place I was staying was bottom of the barrel territory. Full of loudmouthed French teenagers, who seemed to think playing bad rave music at 3am was a perfectly sensible move. The latter decision woke everyone in the hostel before someone put them in their place.
One evening I came home to find someone in my bed. “Someone” turned out to be a young German lady, so I chivalrously ignored the fact she was in my bed and grabbed another empty bed to sleep in. Said decision cost me a lot of sleep, as apparently the previous occupant was energetically passive-aggressive and repeatedly stared at my bed, without ever doing aught about it.
Auckland is the most isolated metropolis on the planet. To its credit, there is no sense of this in the city, which is vibrant and cosmopolitan. Unfortunately it’s also rather hot and hilly, meaning a lot of toil on my part. Living in Dublin, a relatively flat city, has spoiled me. I have since come to the conclusion that places like Auckland should really consider outdoor escalators a la Hong Kong.
In a surprising turn of events, Kev found himself in a delicate balancing act. The most impulsive human being in history has got a girlfriend and a steady job. My kind of behaviour, such as ad-hoc drinking sessions and the like, isn’t something he can partake of to any great degree anymore. In short, the bastard has sold out. To his credit, Kev made himself available for each of the nights I was in Auckland. He entered us into a table quiz one night with his missus (to our intense dissatisfaction, we failed to win).
Inasmuch as there was an underlying theme to this trip, apart from pathological beer drinking, it was incoherence. I had a token ticket out of New Zealand to Sydney to show Immigration, but the reality was that I never intended to take that flight. I cancelled the ticket upon arrival into NZ. The hope was to go to Hong Kong. Fascinating city and easy travel to Chicago. Perfect. Problem was it was Chinese New Year. Standby travel was a risk. Better not to bet the house onHong Kong. So it was that I was gonna go to Kuala Lumpur. After my hostel debacle, I resolved that I would be going upmarket this time. Thankfully, Malaysia boasts some of the cheapest five-star hotels in the world. Out of indecision, I booked one night only, on the basis that I might be able to get to Hong Kong the next day.
Most of my time in Auckland was spent in the Fiddler’s, the aforementioned expat bar. Auckland has no shortage of Irish and British expats, and there was plenty of interesting banter with both, as well as good music (for such a tiny bar, they managed to get a band in every night, no mean feat). Perhaps the most amusing bit of my time there was one afternoon when a regular brought his 4-year-old in while he had a pint. With the usual unfortunate hyperactivity of children of that age, he proceeded to make himself a nuisance, until two cardboard boxes were found to distract him. In my experience, packaging is a wonderful way of keeping children occupied. Many of my best Christmas memories were not of the toys themselves, but of the boxes, polystyrene and bubblewrap that they came in. This also seemed to apply in this instance, as the little fellow proceeded to amuse himself for two hours, pausing only when he accidentally trapped himself in one of the boxes, to the enjoyment of all (apart from him).
Kevin is primarily a cricket trader. He works for TAB (the New Zealand betting monopoly) trying to take advantage of New Zealand gamblers. On my last day I witnessed an historic result. England turned out their most pathetic ODI result in some time. Strange outcome. Kev was so confident of this going the distance that he wanted me to go to his office and bring cans. Sensibly, I demurred. I had a flight at 1.30am, and getting smashed in someone’s workplace might not have dovetailed with that.
Mind you, by the time I reached the airport I was perhaps less than sober. Perhaps not the best situation. I was pretty sure this was a safe bet from a standby perspective, even accounting for Malaysia’s sneaky habit of overselling flights. However, I got a minor scare at checkin when the staff dithered for a minute about whether to accept a standby passenger. Given my slight difficulty maintaining verticality at this point on account of intoxication, I had wanted the whole transaction to be concluded as quickly as possible, lest my inebriation be noticed. Thankfully the dithering ended and I was checked in. Next stop, the bar. After all, one needs one’s top-ups and I had quite a few NZ dollars to get shot of.
Unlike most people, I generally like to be the last to board a flight. Few reasons. Firstly, it means less time sitting around an aircraft and more time productively drinking in the bar. Secondly, nobody’s going to climb over you. Finally, and in this case most importantly, the airline probably isn’t going to enquire too closely as to how drunk you are if you’re one of the last to board, as they’re anxious to get going and offloading you and retrieving your bag would only cause a delay. Upon taking my seat, I discovered that I was sitting beside Osama Bin Laden. Seriously. I didn’t care that the Americans had killed him in Pakistan some years previously. This was him. I now found myself in two minds. On the one hand, there was serious money out for this guy. Twenty-five million dollars at last count. That translates into about seventeen million cans of cheap lager. On the downside, I was now sharing a flight with Osama Bin Laden. He wouldn’t have come back from the dead and taken a flight without intending to do something on it. I summoned my inner Steven Seagal and braced myself, ready to thwart whatever dastardly plot the man had. Then the bar cart came around and Bin Laden ordered a beer. I started to relax. Whatever about coming back from the dead and boarding a flight from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur, the idea of Osama Bin Laden drinking beer was a step too far. Dispelling my mind of any notions of the riches that could have been had from turning this fellow in, I also ordered a beer. Then another. Then I passed out for most of the remainder of the flight.
III: Oh, And He Drank Beer For Breakfast
Inasmuch as there is a crossroads to this planet, Malaysia lays a strong claim to be it. It is the most popular tourist destination for Muslims in the world, yet alcohol is sold in every shop. It is a country where women can sport the hijab and a miniskirt simultaneously. It is 40% Chinese, yet boasts perhaps the most competent English speakers in the Far East. Virtually every word adopted since 1850 is a phonetic rendition of the English. Immigration becomes Immigresun, Station becomes Stesun, Custom becomes Kustam, et cetera. It is a country where most of what the West defines as boundaries simply don’t exist. Like most Asian countries, the borders between indoors and outdoors, day and night, and private and public property are largely ignored. Bars spill over onto the street and serve till nobody wants to drink anymore. Though in theory, public drunkenness is seriously frowned upon (Read: The Malaysian equivalent of a Booting), I saw no evidence of any disapproval during my time there.
I had booked for one night, still hoping to get to Hong Kong. Then I decided I liked being pampered in a five star hotel and booked for another night. Then I noticed one of my colleagues was heading down and booked for another two nights. Happy days. There was one slight hitch. I was in a Muslim country, and we all know how those folks feel about alcohol. Granted, there are bars aplenty, but there isn’t much in the way of variety, as I discovered in what would become my first watering hole in KL, Delaney’s, which was in a hotel, and not a proper Irish bar in any sense of the word. While my hopes were seriously raised by the row of bottles on top of the bar, it turned out that these were display only, and the actual selection was limited to stuff I had already drank. No matter, beer is beer, and if Tiger I must drink, then Tiger I will drink.
The first day was primarily concerned with recovering, and then getting my bearings. For a big city, KL has a conveniently small centre. Most of the good bars are concentrated on three streets, which are in relatively close proximity to each other. The heat and humidity created a strong incentive to stay off the streets where possible, as did the constant pesterings of the various street traders trying to ply their wares onto those who are perhaps less worldly than I am. Then there is the Asian traffic. I have never been in a country in Asia where there is any sort of respect paid to traffic etiquette. I cannot even ascribe this to some sort of inferiority among Orientals in driving skills. The only road accident I was ever involved in was in Korea, and was entirely my fault, when I opened a door into traffic. I blame the climate. Whatever the causes, large parts of Asian metropoli are simply not pedestrian-friendly, beyond the densely-packed city centres where the sheer volume of people makes any sort of dangerous driving impossible.
Anyway, day one having identified a convenient bar, day two was spent doing a smattering of rambling and sightseeing. To be honest, the only sight truly worth seeing (if you don’t have an interest in modern mosques) is the Petronas complex, boasting as it does the former tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas Twin Towers (Note: The Twin Towers’ height included their spire, which the Committee on Tall Buildings failed to notice, therefore there is a strong case to make that their height never exceeded the Sears/Willis Tower in Chicago. The Committee’s response was to include a spire in the height of a building, and exclude antennae, which would also have favoured Chicago). Thankfully, the good citizenry of Malaysia have seen fit to circumvent the entire traffic/humidity/monsoon problem by providing an elevated, covered, air conditioned walkway connecting the area I was in with the complex. Oddly enough, I decided not to go up the towers. There isn’t much reason to go up to get the best view of a city when the only bit of the skyline worth seeing is the only bit you cannot see on account of being inside it.
Now back to the decidedly un-Islamic stuff. I decided that today would be my personal protest against ISIS. Or rather I didn’t. I just tend to break a lot of sharia rules in my general life (I can’t recall the last time I stoned an adulterer to death…). I felt like pizza. To this end, I found myself a Pizza Hut. One slight hitch. There were two types of pepperoni on the menu. This may not seem to be a problem (I have at one point kept three different types in my fridge) but for one major problem: The options were chicken pepperoni or beef pepperoni. Pizza Hut, one of the stalwarts of humanity’s headlong rush towards a globalised monoculture, had seen fit to accede to narrowminded prohibitions on pork. The Hawaiian pizza, which I subsequently chose for, could also claim that no pigs were harmed in its production. While I have no animus towards pigs, I can’t but help that if god hadn’t wanted us to eat pork, he would have made it less delicious.
My search for proper pizza thwarted, I now returned to the narrative for this trip and went back to Delaney’s. I went without any serious plan for the evening, beyond advancing a few levels at Candy Crush and catching up with my emails and the like, all in the comfort of an environment that served beer. Anyway, the nice thing about business hotel bars is that they tend to throw up a lot of solitary travellers who are not averse to getting drunk in the company of strangers. In this case, I got talking to a Canadian guy who was originally from Bangladesh. The barman was also Bangladeshi. A few words of Bengali later and I was suddenly in receipt of free beer. Thankfully my newfound friend (I think his name was Zak) was not a particularly observant Muslim (he freely admitted to having left Bangladesh because he found Islam not to be fun), and we proceeded to get gloriously, uproariously drunk, to the background of varying attempts by locals to do Western songs on a karaoke machine. FInally, we decided to try our hand, and an Irishman and a Bangladeshi Canadian found ourselves singing an American folk ballad, Country Roads, in a Malaysian bar to an audience of Asians, Aussies, and Europeans. Truly, karaoke is the great leveller.
Unsurprisingly, I slept late the next day, and woke up somewhat under par. Fearing a hangover, I immediately returned to the same bar. Zak wasn’t there, but the barman was. Ordering a beer, I was pleasantly surprised to be confronted with neither bill or tab. Repeating the process, the process repeated itself. I was now in receipt of free beer, possibly at the expense of a random encounter from the previous night. While this would seem to be the idealisation of heaven, I was unhappy with the idea of subjecting a friend of mine’s tab to the vagaries of an aggressive Irishman. When my conscience got the better of me in this matter, the barman informed that neither Zak nor myself were in any way on the hook for our tab, the barman had in fact put the whole thing on the tab of a random English fellow who had been aggressively and racistly drunk the previous evening, thereby enabling me to get free beer and the barman to settle (metaphorical) accounts with someone who had abused him.
I had decided on a side project. I would have a pint in every Irish bar in Kuala Lumpur. Not that the list was particularly long. To fill it out, I had to visit two places that shared the name of Healy Mac’s. Subsequently, the Irish Times named one of these establishments as the best Irish bar in the world outside of Ireland, so I can make a claim to have been there before it was famous. They are indeed fine bars. To their credit, they are neither the stereotypical “Oirish” places that one finds in the USA, identikit bars tailored to simply look the part, nor the standard Irish bar in Asia, which is essentially Moe’s Tavern with Guinness on tap. They were essentially an upmarket Asian bar with a heavy Irish influence. More importantly, they had the best pizza I’ve ever had in Asia, this time with proper pork.
In a fortunate turn of events, Paul, a colleague of mine, was also in Malaysia, so rather than trawling expat bars and business hotels to find other misanthropic alcoholics for company, I had drinking company sorted in advance. Wonderful. They were on the other side of the city, but KL’s centre is nice and walkable, so that wasn’t a problem. After one particular night where a lot of drink was consumed, as well as shisha of all things, I decided to walk back to my hotel. This inadvertently took me through the red light district.
I like to think of myself as a worldly person. I have wandered through red light districts in several cities. Yeah, they’re generally not the most salubrious of areas. But at the same time, they are business districts, and all the stakeholders have an interest in keeping the area as attractive as possible for potential clients. So it was surprising when a West African hooker decided to get rather pushy with me. After I politely declined her initial advances, she persisted in trying to take advantage of a visibly drunk Westerner. The thing is, no matter how hammered I am, I retain certain instincts. A few years ago a would-be pickpocket in Benidorm ended up with rather sore fingers after trying to get overly touchy with my waistline, and this time was no different. I know a scam when I see it. Genuine hookers tend to back off after one refusal. If I had taken her up on her advances I would either have had my wallet pinched in short order, or gone back to my hotel room with her only to wake up sans wallet, passport, and any portable electronic devices. The problem was that even after realising that doing a dippideedoodah on my wallet was a non-starter, she continued to pester me. I even tried to fake homosexuality to get rid of her, and that didn’t work. Eventually I managed to palm her off to another potential victim, whom she evidently decided might be an easier mark.
There was one final destination on my itinerary: Chicago. There was snag. The only transpacific flight that looked good from a standby perspective was Cathay Pacific out of Hong Kong. The same problem that had afflicted me out of Auckland, namely Chinese New Year, was now inhibiting me getting into Hong Kong. I was now going to have to contemplate going the long way round, via Abu Dhabi. At least I knew the availability, and it was doable.
As I may have mentioned, I was now somewhat behind in my project. Kuala Lumpur lacks a decent brewpub, and most establishments only serve a small number of beers. I had assumed that, being Islamic, there would be serious restrictions on the sale of alcohol in shops, so imagine my surprise when I discovered, the day before I was due to leave, that there were no such restrictions, and that the shop across from my hotel specialised in extra-strength Dutch lagers. Rather than risk killing myself from necking a few cans of 12% stuff, I wisely decided to grab a few Burmese offerings, which, while bland, at least meant I could get to the airport and still be able to stand up.
One thing about Etihad: They’re exacting Staff have to follow the same procedures worldwide. So do staff passengers. In Dublin, when working for them, we can be tyrannical about dress codes. So it was to my immense shock that the handlers in Kuala Lumpur International Airport neither inspected my attire, used my name, or stood up to greet me. This harrowing experience was capped by me being given my luggage receipt, not on a docket as I had previously deemed customary, but on the back of my boarding card, a procedure that I supposed only happened at lesser airlines. Like I say, a harrowing experience.
Airlines like to brag to their passengers. Malaysian are bad offenders, prefixing all their television with ads for the joys of Kuala Lumpur. Etihad are perhaps worse, subjecting all their passengers to what can be described as propaganda through the on board entertainment systems. They also never miss an opportunity to remind passengers (or guests, as they refer to them) that they are the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, a sly dig at their much larger rival down the road in Dubai.
That said, their inflight service is good, and they have a better beer selection than most airlines, with the possible exceptions of Qantas and a few of the American carriers. Unusually, they also provide decent food onboard, and the seats are quite good from the point of view of sleeping, so I arrived in Abu Dhabi in quite a good humour. Slightly nervous about my prospects of getting to Chicago (the flight had been quite tight when I left KL, and there may have been a few more tickets sold since), but happy nonetheless. My happiness was only intensified when I got accepted onto the Chicago flight, and into (what I thought) was a decent seat. Seventeen hours later, when I got off the aircraft in O’Hare, whatever reserves of happiness I had were long gone, and I had the look of a man who had experienced a deep personal trauma.
I think it is fair to say that, having gone through the US preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi Airport, I now have a fair idea of hell looks like. One goes through X-rays and metal detectors three times, has one’s documents verified three times, and queues for every single interaction. Security and immigration staff seem a good deal more thorough than their Dublin counterparts, presumably because of the longstanding belief in America that darker people are all potential terrorists. Then there’s the babies. So many babies. At any given time there are three or four of them making a racket or trying to escape their parents’ clutches by running under barriers. When one gets through this rigmarole, one now has to deal with the fact that there are not, in fact, any passenger facilities once one has cleared. What seems to have happened is that three enclosed gates were simply given a second entrance. Then they noticed the lack of a toilet. So one has to descend a lift to a lower floor to do one’s ablutions. There doesn’t appear to be a stairs down, so god knows what would happen if the lift were to break. After boarding the flight, it then remained on stand for an hour for no apparent reason.
There is a certain seating etiquette that regular fliers are aware of. If you want to sleep, use a window seat. If you are the kind of person who plans on frequent trips to the toilet, take the aisle. As you can imagine, I’m an aisle person. Unfortunately, the fellow occupying the window seat should have been in an aisle seat too. The blighter must have made twenty trips to the toilet, all of which grotesquely inconvenienced me. It’s hard to amass a stockpile of drinks when you have to move them and fold up your table every hour because some idiot can’t control his bladder. So heavy drinking wasn’t on the cards, and getting any sort of sleep was going to be a problem too.
The flight was going to be taking a somewhat unorthodox route. The conventional route from Abu Dhabi to Chicago would have gone over Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Ukraine. Between ISIS and the People’s Republic of Donetsk, this was perhaps somewhat risky, particularly given the latter’s predilections towards shooting down airliners. The net result was that the flight plan added about thirty minutes onto the normal flight time.
Some years ago Boeing had a great idea. Their flagship widebody, the 777, was built with nine-abreast seating in economy class. But with some narrowing of the aisle and shaving an inch off every seat, they could in fact squeeze ten seats into every row. I was on such an aircraft now, and was about to discover that a narrow aisle was a huge problem if one was in the aisle seat. Every time someone walked past I was knocked in the shoulder. This problem was particularly acute when some South Asian lady who was build along the same dimensions as a sofa made one of her frequent trips to the toilet. Now drinking and sleeping were out of the question, and I was going to be spending a fifteen hour flight being constantly disturbed by the guy inside me’s toilet trips. So I think it wasn’t unreasonable for me to be somewhat dishevelled and haggard. Oh well, time was short, and there was beer to be drank. And I had come to the perfect place for it.
IV: Really Book Smart, But No Common Sense
Chicago. I have extolled its virtues many times. Unlike many American cities, with identikit freeways and endless suburbs, Chicago has a soul. It’s a dark, gritty soul, but it is the kind of soul that encapsulates much of America. It is Anytown, USA writ large. It is the America of doughnut-eating cops, rail yards, and picket-fenced wooden houses. It is the industrial America, the Rust Belt America, and the post-industrial America rolled into one. It is simultaneously an Irish-American city, a German-American city, an African-American city and a Hispanic-American city. Whereas New York subsumes all these identities into the portmanteau of simply being a New Yorker, Chicagoans retain an affinity with their roots. The net result is one of the most interesting cities on the planet.
Chicago is also probably the best city in America for drinking. Certainly, it offers an incredible range of bars.The true Chicago bar is the dive, a dirty, dim place whose sole bartender is the proprietor. But there is a whole spectrum of bars to choose from. There is the extreme upmarket (The cocktail bar at the Peninsula), the upmarket (the Signature Room), the mid-range (Timmy O’Tooles on Ontario or the Lodge on Division), and the downmarket with a vestige of class (Pippin’s on Rush). Essentially, no matter your station in life, Chicago will provide a drinking establishment for you.
March can do weird things to Chicago. In this case, it was an unseasonably cold March. Lake Michigan was still frozen. There was snow on the street. This made hauling my suitcase over a few blocks something of a chore, and caked both my suitcase and shoes in slush upon arrival at my hotel.
I had gone to Chicago to catch up with Dave Grimes. He wasn’t due to arrive for a few days yet. I was therefore left to my own devices, which gave me the perfect opportunity to finish the project. Timmy O’Tooles supplied me with a clutch of decent ales on Friday, as well as a pretty awesome steak. So it was that the next day I walked into Pippin’s, with only four beers to go, and trying to work out how to finish the project in style.
One thing that I had learned over my travels was to get on with strangers. In this case, my unintended drinking companions were a company executive from the East Coast and a ship’s captain from New Orleans who lived in the John Hancock Building. In these situations I tend to downplay the minutiae of my job and play up the more interesting aspects. As a result, my newfound friends were under the impression that my duties were entirely about credit card fraud. It was at some point that afternoon that a pint of Stella Artois became my eightieth different beer of my trip. Mission accomplished. The ghosts of three years ago were laid to rest.
There are half a million homeless people in America. Chicago is home to an awful lot of them. However, in my experience, cold snaps tend to have an adverse effect on visibly homeless people. I hadn’t seen a single vagrant in my time there. Then Dave rang and asked me to meet him at the most suitable L-Train station. Arriving early, and without a nearby bar to duck into, I detoured into a nearby McDonald’s. Suddenly I discovered where the homeless population of Chicago went for the winter. I was the only non-transient customer in the place, and thus became the focus of their mendicancy. Ten minutes of requests for change can turn someone very rightwing indeed.
David Grimes is one of the few people to whom I would ever defer. The bastard had an astounding amount of knowledge about scientific matters, and a vaguely worrying amount about everything else. He’s also a decent chap to go drinking with. He was over on a junket, which at least allowed me to lord my previous experience of Chicago over him (believe you me, for my fragile ego, this matters). More importantly, I got to take advantage of his expenses, albeit on a small scale.
Chicago is a city that doesn’t really have a proper tourist scene. Navy Pier on a frozen Lake Michigan was perhaps the only thing I could show Dave. Even the freeze was a bit of a diasppointment, as the thaw seemed to have hit at an inopportune moment. On the other hand, the people Mr Grimes was visiting/junketing were most interesting. Suffice it to say that the state of Illinois paid for a few drinks for me, though this wasn’t my intention. Also, should you be a true carnivore, I would heartily recommend the Swine & Wine on Michigan. Though perhaps having pork brain on the menu might be a bit much.
Myself and Dave have a few shared passions. Both of us hate stupidity. Both of us have issues with the idea of a God or the amount of money spent on the Irish language. But, most importantly as the evening proved, both of us love Jim Steinman. If you don’t know who Jim Steinman is, you don’t deserve to be reading this. Google Jim Steinman, listen to a few Meat Loaf songs, and come back enriched. That’s the way it is.
The final evening found us in Pippin’s again. This bar has a sign on the door forbidding bringing in handguns. Not specifically relevant, but important to understand the nature of Pippin’s. It’s a slightly dodgy establishment. Mind you, me and Dave basically monopolised the jukebox, which meant that the unfortunate patrons of said bar were subjected to various Wagnerian Rock masterpieces for the evening. At least it beats the last time I was in Chicago, when an unnamed friend decided that playing B’Witched would be a good idea. All in all though, a good way to round off the trip.
In the five years that I have been a regular user of Chicago O’Hare International Airport, the International terminal has undergone a vast improvement. When I first went there, the sole airside facilities were a newsagent and a stand that sold bottles of beer. Now there are restaurants and decent bars, as well as duty free facilities. In other words everything someone like me needs. At this stage I was down to my last reserves of cash, so the fact that I was heading home was a welcome relief. A month is a long time to be abroad.
Epilogue: Greg Bowler: Died from Living?
They say travel broadens the mind. I’ve never been too sure of that. When I crept into my own bed on the morning of March 5th, 2015, I suppose that my main emotion was relief. Reality was going to reassert itself. Admittedly it was a reality of sixty-hour weeks and austerity. A month abroad had cost me far more than planned. I needed normality, if only for the sake of financial sense.
And yet, returning to work that evening wasn’t closure. Having taken four weeks off, flown nearly forty thousand miles, and drank eighty-six different beers, it takes some time to get back into reality. Granted, I owed thousands of euros to various individuals. That kind of thing tends to focus the mind wonderfully. But as I dealt with that new reality, one more associated with the Greek government, I was more relaxed than might be expected.
I’m feckless with money. I earn it. I spend it. I accumulate a certain amount. I spend it on a holiday. I have fun. Reset and repeat. Maybe I get a bit more indebted than I should. Maybe I could have some sort of coherent plan for the future. But the future isn’t within my control. I could die tomorrow. I could end up sacrificing the present on the altar of the future, and then what? The true reality is that of memories, and given the choice between accumulating money and memories, I know what I would choose.
Appendix: Beer Chart
1: Tennent’s on Couch at home on morning of departure
2: Slaney in the Slaney
3: Creans on the 152
4: Bombardier in Heathrow T4
5: Bridge in the Bridge
6: Tiger on MH3
7: Carlsberg on MH3
8: Asahi in KLIA
9: Heineken on MH129
10: Peroni in the Espy
11: Fat Yak in the hotel
12: Corona in Tim’s place
13: James Boag in the Crown
14: Carlton Draught in the motel
15: Kosciusko in the Elephant and Wheelbarrow
16: James Squire Pale in the E&W
17: Little Creatures in the E&W
18: Sierra Nevada in the Fifth Province
19: Little Creatures Bright in the E&W
20: White Rabbit Pale in the E&W
21: Squire’s Golden in the E&W
22: Cascade Pale Ale in the Fifth Province
23: Cooper’s in the Fifth Province
24: Tsingtao in the Motel
25: Little Ripper in the AV8
26: XXXX Gold on QF161
27: Monteith Golden in WLG
28: Hollandia in the Leisure Inn
29: Parrot Dog in a random Wellington pub
30: Assembly Pale Ale in another random Wellington pub
31: Founders 2009 in the same random Wellington pub
32: Founders 1981 in the Residence in Wellington
33: “Beer” (Variety undisclosed, apparently some sort of House Lager) in the Bresolin, Wellington
34: Flying Fortress in the George, Wellington
35: North End on the Straitsman Ferry, Wellington
36: Tui at the cricket game
37: NZ Pale ale in a random gaff
38: Three Wolves Pale Ale in random pub in Nelson
39: Sprig and Fern Pale Ale in Nelson
40: Sprig and Fern Blonde in Nelson
41: Steinlager in NSN
42: Hawkes Bay Pure Lager in the Fiddler
43: Hawkes Bay Amber Ale in the Fiddler
44: Southern Star Pale Ale in the Shakespeare
45: Emerson Pale Ale in the Windsor Castle
46: Speights in the Windsor Castle
47: Sawmill Pale Ale in the Paddington
48: Mac’s Gold in the Paddington
49: Speight’s 5 Malt Dark in AKL
50: Myanmar in the Swiss Garden
51: Paulaner in HealyMac’s
52: Kronenbourg on EY413
53: Modelo in the Red Roof
54: Goose Island 312 in Pippin’s
55: Dos Equis in Pippin’s
56: Dogfish head in Pippin’s
57: Goose Island Green Line in Pippin’s
58: Boulevard 80 Acre in Pippin’s
59: Goose Island ten hill in Harry Corry’s
60: Goose Island Honkers in Harry Corry’s
61: Sam Adams Cold Snap in Timmy O’Toole’s
62: Founder’s All Day IPA in Timmy O’Toole’s
63: Revolution Fist City in Timmy O’Toole’s
64: Sam Adams Boston Lager in Timmy O’Toole’s
65: Oskar Blues Pinner in Timmy O’Toole’s
66: Fat Tire in Timmy O’Toole’s
67: 3 Floyd’s Gumball Head in Timmy O’Tooles
68: Pier Pale Ale in the Signature
69: Five Rabbit in the Hyatt
70: Begyle Blonde in Timothy O’Toole’s
71: Harp in Pippin’s
72: Chainbreaker in Timmy O’Toole’s
73: Lagunitas IPA in Timmy O’Toole’s
74: PBR in the Red Roof Inn
75: Mad Hatter in Pippin’s
76: Smithwick’s in Pippins
77: New Belgium Snapshot in Pippin’s
78: Revolution Seasonal in Pippin’s
79: Miller High Life in Pippin’s
80: Stella Artois in Pippin’s
81: Krankschaft Kolsch in Pippin’s
82: Dales Pale Ale in Pippin’s
83: Jubelale in Pippin’s
84: Estrella Damm in the Swine and Wine
85: Mythos in the Swine and Wine
86: Revolution Antihero in Pippin’s