Tuesday, April 01, 2008

East and West - Old and New

Our trip began on 28th March at London City airport. While Heathrow was melting in the West under the weight of the British Airways chief executive's hubristic balls about a "gateway to the 21st century" our own flight from the East was abruptly cancelled. The plan to "go small" as a way of avoiding the usual horrors of air travel was blown off course by a brisk cross-wind in Silvertown. So we settled down to indulge in that most British of pastimes - queuing.

It wasn't long before we made friends. A chirpy Mancunian called Smichael was also headed for Berlin. He was looking forward to a stay at the Berlin Hilton courtesy of a friend who had bought her boyfriend a surprise trip to Berlin for his birthday and then been dumped. He used his Northern genius to blag us seats in business class. Then I began a conversation with an American named Glinton. His flight to Frankfurt was also cancelled but that wasn't his main concern. He was also about to miss a far longer flight - to Kazakhstan...

Glinton said that queuing is unknown in Kazakhstan. He said that any activity where a queue might be expected turned into an elbows out free for all and that it really did his head in. He reckoned it was all because of life under the communist boot - people didn't want to queue because if they waited their turn by the time they arrived what they were waiting for (food, the bus) would have gone. Glinton was from Oklahoma and loved his new home on the steppe. Why was he in Kazakhstan? Why do Americans go these places dummy? OIL.

"There's enough oil out there under the Caspian Sea to keep the planet rollin' another thirty years."

When I questioned the quality of the product (having read several books that claimed the "peak oil" point has already passed) his eyes glazed with junkie glee "It's the good stuff man, liquid gold"

Earlier Mary and I had played a game of "spot the German". But I got it wrong every time. All the people who appeared to be speaking fluent German into their mobiles, indeed who were speaking fluent German into their mobiles, turned out merely to be clever and well-educated English people. I asked Glinton if he spoke another language and he did - Russian. Once again he launched into a tirade against Kazaks. In a region of former Soviet republics everyone spoke Russian but only Kazaks speak Kazak. He couldn't understand why the locals were insisting on changing the street signs from duel language signs into Kazak only. Glinton, they call in culture and though I know it's hard to understand sometimes, to some people it matters. A lot.

After years of queuing we managed to book onto an evening flight and received £20 of luncheon vouchers to spend at the airport. Despite this invitation to dine we left as quickly as possible and went to find a pub in historic Limehouse. We rode the DLR through the shocking docklands landscape, the equivalent of the trailer parks and dust-bowls in between the East and West coasts of the USA, a secret world nobody speaks about. Here we saw islands of heavily designed pioneer developments surrounded by collapsing factories; windows smashed, walls covered in faded adverts then covered again in luminous graffiti. Who would have guessed such wastelands could exist in our great city? I should get out more.

Once in Limehouse we headed for the river through driving rain. The street names were evocative and buzzing with history - Horseferry Road, Trinidad Street, Butcher Row, Grenade Street - surely a place we could find a good pub? But despite the names, all traces of the past seemed to have been erased. I phoned pub overlord Adam who claimed there were great public houses to be found amongst them thar yuppie hell-towers - but where?

Through the rain a sign. Hanging baskets overflowing with flowers. The Grapes! Inside was jammed with true London folk, mysteriously at leisure in the middle of the working week. And so, peace at last, not gorging on currywurst in the Tiergarten but munching whitebait from a pint glass, washing them down with the finest ales in the land...

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