Sunday, June 30, 2019


Last night’s sleep was short but satisfying. I woke just before my alarm went off, and lay in bed listening to the hushed orchestra of farts, squeeking out of tired arses. After a quick shower, and drying off with what appeared to be a hand towel, we made our way down to the van. Thomas was already awake and watching something on his tablet. The grounds surrounding the hotel were pretty vast and green, with all sorts of sports fields and tracks dotted about the place. Seems to be quite a usual thing in Poland, we’ve stayed at a few places like this over the years. Already, at nine am, the heat was already stronger than it had been at midday yesterday. The huge heatwave sweeping Europe was expected to make a second showing over the next couple of days.

There was breakfast provided at the hotel, in a big tiled room around the front side of the hotel. A few of the other bands were already there, both Active Minds and Anti-System, who were playing with us tonight in Wroclaw. I was surprised to find that the entire breakfast buffet was vegan. There was quite a spread of different soy meat products and salads, tofu spreads etc. The only let down was the instant coffee. We sat down at this one long table in the middle of the large room and chatted a little with the other bands. Suddenly some old woman popped up in the bar behind us, big smile on her coupon, “Musika?” Not interested in waiting for an answer she pressed play on the stereo system and out came some pretty awful euro disco, or something similar. The old lady give everyone a thumbs up and then left, only to return a few moments later with a big speaker, and fumbled with it up on to the bar top, and just sort of wedged it against the wall at an angle. The long table of old punks just kind of looked on, bemused. A short while later the tit singer in last night's SkOi! band came swooning down the stairs from the floor above, still wearing the ruffled shirt, accompanied by a full-on studded belt. He looked well pleased with himself, singing along to the old ladies’ music.

We had at least a six hour drive today, so we needed to get going. I was hoping to get to Wroclaw in plenty of time to go for a little explore of the place. We played the same venue a few years ago with DB and for some reason that night the promoter told me that the place was a little way from the city centre. I don’t know why I didn’t look at Google Maps or whatever then, and maybe there was some miscommunication going on, but the venue was pretty much bang in the middle of the city. It was in an enclosed yard in the middle of a housing complex, so we’d ended up sat in the yard all day and night. Having since learned that Wroclaw is a very cultural and picturesque city, I was determined to make up for it and do some sightseeing today.

The drive was pretty chilled out. We listened to a playlist Thomas had that was full of old greats like Floyd, Zep, Tull etc. I sat up front with him enjoying the tunes and reading the Alinksy book to its conclusion. We made a few stops along the way, filling up on coffee and water. Quite nice to not stress the drive really. Get in for the show was at four, and soundcheck around five. But then we weren’t playing until eleven, so we’d have plenty of time for a stroll before we played. We pulled into a gas station for some lunch, with Smoke on the Water having just started up on the playlist. Jon started vociferously singing along to the riff with the word, “Körv, körv körv… körv, körv, körv, körv”. Jon fucking loves sausage. He’s happy to eat a vegan rider like the rest of us when we’re at shows, but on his own time, he’s all about the meat. And telling everyone about it.

There wasn’t much going at the service station, so my lunch was a coffee, a mini Toblerone and a blueberry yogurt with muesli. We stood around outside the van, waiting for Thomas and Jon. Thomas soon appeared but Jon was nowhere to be seen. We decided to get in the van and when Andy pulled the side door open there was Jon, sat cradling his hot dog with a huge smile, “Körv” he said, delighted, in a little high pitched voice.

At another stop along the way, not far from the finish line, we got to talking about how Wroclaw was supposed to the micro-brewery capital of Poland, something a friend at work had told me. There was indeed a small selection of IPA’s, APA’s and the likes in the fridge, with colourful hipster labels on them. We were just in the mood for one, so decided to share a bottle of Summer Ale by some brewery called Dr. Brew. We passed it around the van as we drove the last little way into town. Johan remarked that last night we’d drank one beer between the whole band, that bottle of tepid piss I’d bought after the show, and even that we didn’t finish. The Summer Ale provided a decidedly better experience. Still pretty lame though, one bottle of beer, shared between three. Jon doesn’t even drink these days. How times have changed.

We arrived in Wroclaw just after half past four. The venue was almost exactly as I remembered, except that the bar in the courtyard wasn’t selling hipster beer and band apartment above the venue wasn’t as cosy as I remember it. Jen always says I have a tendency to put an overly positive spin on the past. After relieving myself of the piss I’d needed since drinking the beer in the van, we hung around for a little while, tucked into some sandwiches and fruit upstairs in the backstage apartment upstairs. The Active Minds guys arrived soon after, followed by Anti-System. There was a local band called The Dog playing too, and they were lending me us a guitar for the show. I’d spoken to one of the guys online the other day. They seemed pretty friendly. The Anti-System guys were lending us all backline, though. They seem like such nice people, really good old punks, completely humble. We helped them load out their van and then got set up.

The sound guy was very enthusiastic about his job, and spent most of the soundcheck darting around the place. I had a hard time keeping up with him, but he knew his system and we had a great sound up on stage. We played through Fires Below, since we fucked it last night. I was using the old boy from Anti-System’s JCM 900, which is usually hard work in getting any bite out of it, but it was sounding absolutely banging during soundcheck. Nice to playing in a small place tonight. With the sound feeling really good, I was now looking forward to the show. When we played here with DB and Pyramido we set up on the floor, and played to maybe around twenty people. I hoped it would be more than that tonight. I had a feeling it probably would be. But you never know. It is summer, and it is hot…

They were serving dinner by the time we finished soundcheck, some cool little kitchen called Seitan Threat, serving vegan kebabs. When I came out the gig room I saw the two brothers from Active Minds waiting to be served, talking about Pakistan and Bangladesh. Given their anarcho roots, I figured they were talking politics. Turned out they were talking about cricket. When the drummer received his kebab I heard him say to his brother, “Wonder if they had tea upstairs”. Couldn’t be more English.

Once we’d all eaten we went for a stroll around the city. European City of Culture 2016. As soon we left the housing complex I felt annoyed that we’d sat inside the yard all day when I was here with DB. The city centre was right on the venue’s doorstep, and it was beautiful. The river split the city in a web of offshoot canals, where the Wroclaw folk were sat around in the early evening sun, barbequing, relaxing with beer and wine, completely care free. Really is a cool looking city, with it’s old trams and mixture of old and new buildings side by side. We walked around for an hour or so, crossing numerous bridges. As we looped around and headed back in the direction of the venue, the sight of the crowd sat along the river banks various bars put me very much in the mood for a cold beer. Just the one. We still have at least three and a half hours before we play. One little cold beer would be lovely. It would be like pretending we’re on holiday. We found a place just off the riverfront with some outside tables. It looked promising. Andy and Johan were up for it, too. The problem was they only served German pilsner, and that was not what I wanted, at all. So we sat there and chatted for a while whilst Jon drank the lukewarm cappuccino he’d ordered. I don’t know how we got onto the subject of slang words for different facial hair styles, or maybe it was Jon saying he’d planned to go the barber’s before coming away, that he wanted a Tompa Lindberg velvet beard, but was doomed to the broom he had. Anyway, I learned some interesting new Swedish phrases around the subject matter, such as “Björnfitta” and “Tangorabbat”, which had me almost crying with laughter. It was just the way Jon said it that tickled me.

We made our way back to the street the venue was on and Jon tailed off, but checking the time, the rest of us felt like strolling a little longer. There was a park in the other direction that looked quite nice and we headed there. It was a lot hotter this evening than it was yesterday, and we were still in the mood for a beer. There were no cosy looking bars around this area, though, so we settled on the idea of buying a cold bottle of ale and sitting in a park. Johan and I went in to one of the many Delitkatess(y) (I’d also spotted a window advert earlier that had Laptopy and telefony), but they only seem to sell the pint sized bottles of beer in this country. Looking a little doubtful at the fridge, we pulled a bottle of American Pale Ale each out of the box. Then looked at each other and suggested we share a bottle. Rock. And. Roll.

We sat in one of the city’s less cosy parks and shared the bottle, and then walked back to the venue. Jon had set up the merch in the outside courtyard of the house and seemed to be enjoying himself. He had someone on the errand of procuring some weed for him, which he would swap for a Victims shirt and then put the money in the till himself. Quite a good little set up he had going for himself. There were quite a lot of people already here, probably at least five times as many as the last time I was here. Anti-System were playing so we went inside to check them out but as soon as you walked into the small box like room it was like walking into a wall of heat. I looked over at the Active Minds guys who were sat at the back of the room with their merch, looking flustered in the heat. I couldn’t take more than half a song before having to escape. It was going to be a proper shift later on.

We hung outside for the other bands, needing to save as much energy as possible for the show. Jon had gotten his weed and was banging on about an old acquaintance from a venue in Jönköping they used to play way back in the early days, but Andy and Johan couldn’t place who he was talking about. Andy said he couldn’t remember anything from that venue since whenever they played they only ever got paid in wine and ended up boats. I laugh at the thought of those days, seems like a different world. So far from where we are today. That moved the conversation on to Victims first ever UK tour, in like 99’ or something, where they did the whole tour in Pete Scalplock’s little car, Andy up front with the bass case between his legs. That was the first time they met Active Minds.

Our old friend Phillip had come to the show tonight. He was on holiday with the family and timed it with the show, so he could come hang out. He’s such a sweet guy and really old friend of the band. He’s booked a bunch of shows for us over the years. Last time was a couple of years ago at his DIY Hardcore Fest in Gydnia. He used to have this hotel out in the countryside, another kind of activities/sports type place. Really high end, though, with a cosy little bar. We’d sit up all night, just chilling and pouring ourselves beers from the tap. It was great to see him tonight. He told me they sold the hotel and moved back to the city, but he has a new place and his wife has a job with some cultural establishment. Seemed like they were happy with things. He told us that we should come on holiday sometime and stay with them. That part of Poland is one of Europe’s little hidden gems.

A while later, as Andy and I were sat on a bench across the other side of the courtyard, I noticed some guy who had bought a Victims shirt, talking to Johan, who was pointing over to us. He approached and said that he wanted to just let us know how much he loved the new record and that he loved the theme of the lyrics and the concept of it. He spoke in a broad American accent, so I guess he might have been from there, but he was very interested in the sample we have on We Fail with the climate activist Brigadier General Stephen Cheney. It was really cool to have someone want to talk about that side of the record, it was conversations like these we had in mind when making the record. He was a really sweet guy. I felt a little bad when he thanked me for speaking him to him just as he was leaving. I thanked him for speaking to me, and he just kind of looked embarrassed. As was I. Strange.

It was time for the gig. I went upstairs and fetched a shit load of water and towels. Just standing on stage soundchecking, I was already sweating my ass off. The box room was pretty full by the time I began the long guitar intro. Phillip down the front with a big smile on his face, looking desperate to have a bit of a dance, the other guy who’d spoken to us about the album looking the same. Most of the rest of the crowd though, were at best rocking back and forth on the balls of their feet. I got it, though. It was ridiculously hot in here. After the first two songs I was furiously guzzling water.

We were a lot tighter tonight, and Fires Below went through without any balls up. The set, fun as it was to play, was a bit of a struggle. The fourteen songs felt like a shift, such was the heat. When we finished This is the End, I just sat there in a bit of a daze, hoping to fuck there would be no follow ups tonight. To be fair, a lot of the crowd were running for the fresh air of the courtyard too, but there are always a few furthest forward shouting for more. We scratched it tonight, though, to the disappointment of one or two of them. Not to be totally beaten, a couple of them climbed up onto the stage for handshakes and conversation. Always one to oblige, I stood there talking with some drunk punk for about five minutes, desperate to pack up and get out into the air, join Jon at the merch table. Couldn’t tell him that, though.

The air outside, once I got to it, was fucking wonderful. After drinking a liter of water I asked Jon to grab me a beer from upstairs and was delighted to find that it was actually pretty cold when it arrived. I hadn’t been full of hope since earlier on the beer had been resting in a plastic ice bucket minus ice. Seems like the guys running the place had found some now. The pilsner at this place was so mich better than the filfth from the night before, it went down like a fucking dream. Andy and Johan seemed to be experiencing it the same way, and were soon into a second bottle.

After sorting things out with Adam, the promoter, and having a bit of a chat with him about the venue and the Wroclaw scene, we began to think about heading to the hostel. The sound engineer guy told me he really enjoyed the gig, he told me that considering it’s summer and a lot of people are on holiday, as well as it being roasting hot, he said the amount of people at the show tonight was amazing. That was nice to hear. There were a few people hanging out in the little bar on the other side of the courtyard but it was already one am, and we had another early rise tomorrow, so we decided to head over to the hostel. We walked out of the big gate and found four punks lying fast asleep on the hard ground beside the van in the dark, all of them cuddling. Jon said it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. They did look kind of sweet. They were obviously totally fucked up, though, and one of them in particular we had a hard time convincing to move out of the way of the vans wheels. Jon wondered if he’d had a heroin overdose. Think it was more of a pivo overdose though.

The hostel was only five minutes away, right in the middle of downtown. There were lots of partygoers mulling around the busy street that the entrance to the hostel was on. Thomas had nowhere to park the van so decided to drop us off and park up at a petrol station and kip there. He seems more than content to hang out in his office for the most part. The hostel was manned by a young girl who showed us to our dorm. It was pretty basic stuff, six squeaky bunk beds, and again, no curtains on the big windows. We made a quick fix with bed quilts again and hoped for the best. It was going to be in the mid thirties tomorrow, I could imagine a restless sleep ahead. I went for a shower at the other end of the corridor, finding a bra lying on the floor in the middle of the room. Fuck knows. The soap smelt like cardboard, and I didn’t feel all that refreshed when I returned to the dorm. Even worse, Jon had gone down to the street and bought a chicken kebab, that he was now noshing on, high as a fucking kite and laughing to himself, stinking the place out. I awoke a couple of times in the night, drenched in sweat and dying for a piss. Every time I came back into the hot room I was hit by the smell of sweaty kebab. What an asshole.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Zelebkso, Ultra Chaos Piknik

First day of holiday and you have to set your alarm earlier than you have it set for work. I met Jon on the metro at Gullmarsplan and it was the first thing he said, “For once we have the luxury of flying to a gig at noon, and I still had to set my alarm for five am.” The way it is when you fly low budget from an airport over a hundred kilometers away in Nyköping. Works out nice for Johan, though, since he lives there now. Back in the spiritual home of Victims. Where it all began…

Johan was still last to the airport, though. Classic. Closest arrives last. We were sat by the drop-off zone car park, waiting around in the sun for Johan and our gear, that he’d taken with him after our last practice so we’d skip having to lug it on the airport bus. Looking forward to our first show in almost a year. Fucking crazy. I had a right Benny Hill moment when Johan turned up in the car. Mine and Andy’s bags were sat next to each other on the ground, and when we saw Johan’s car arrive we went to pick up our bags at the same time. Andy lifted his heavy rucksack, and since mine was leaning against his, it fell over and my swing and grab missed the bag. At the same time Andy’s bag came up and knocked my cap off. Andy didn’t notice any of this, it was just me, feeling like a right cunt behind him.

We had time to spare before check in opened, and as we stood waiting in the hall a Polish woman and her young family took interest in us and our cases, cottoning on that we were a band. She was very friendly and thought it was really fun that we were going to Poland to play some shows. After check in we shuffled along to the oversized baggage belt, where the same guy who checked us in shuffled along his end and met us again to check in baggage at the other end of the hall. I cracked up as Jon went to lift Andy’s heavy snare and pedal case, making a really awkward swing with the case to the belt. The thing is just as Jon was dumping the case the belt stopped and Jon almost went arse over tit down the belt, shouting, “Sorry!” as he did so. Classic Jon.

With a couple of hours still to spare we grabbed some coffee and sat in the little seated area outside. There were a bunch of “lads” there, obviously going on a stag party somewhere, drinking beers despite the early hour. One of them was dressed in a full sized bear suit, as the kids TV character Björne. As I was admiring the suit my attention was diverted by a sorry, scraping sound. Some wiry looking guy in sunglasses, dragging a holdall bag along the ground behind him, walked past us and into the airport. We saw him again later on as we were stood in the boarding queue. He was obviously steamboats. He stood there, still wearing sunglasses despite being inside, trying adamantly to open a door which he’d mistakenly taken for the bog. Confused as fuck. We all smirked briefly before realising that the wanker was on our flight. He’d left his holdall on the floor in the queue up ahead in front of the desk, and went stumbling through the crowd, banging into people as he barged back into line, and then stood there swaying back and forth until the airport staff clocked him and pulled him off to the side.

I was sure that he wasn’t going to be allowed on the flight since he was fucking minced. They asked him for his boarding pass and he spent the next ten minutes rummaging through his bag, pulling out a computer keyboard and various other electronic devices before finally finding the document. It was hard not to stare, and to stifle the laugh, but then I’m sure I saw him pull his wallet out and inside there were two pics of children which I assumed were his own, and that dramatically took the shine off things. Now I just felt really sorry for the guy, and his kids. They let him on, anyway, with a “Next time you won’t be allowed”, ticking off. Seemed like he wasn’t alone on this flight, though. There was another guy, real builder looking guy, not walking in an entirely straight line, and then there was this middle aged couple sniggering like schoolkids as they found a left bag of duty free booze and handed it in to the staff. I don’t know why, but they kept making jokes about how it might have been a bomb in the bag, and then looking at each and laughing, chuffed as fuck. Right pair of twats. Thick a shit, obviously. Just as I was looking at them carrying on, I noticed through the window behind them, Björne climbing the steps to a Ryanair plane. Fucking surreal. Then as we walked out on to the tarmac to board the plane, a young girl behind us puked up. Despite all that, the flight was drama free.

We were met at Chopin Airport in Warsaw by our driver for the weekend, Thomas. Our booker Zoli had booked it for us, so we didn’t know what to expect, but chuffed to find a nice grey Sprinter van with air conditioning. There is a pretty insane heatwave flooding Europe at the moment, and although it doesn’t seem to have hit Poland just yet, it’s supposed to be 36 degrees when we play Germany on Sunday.

The drive down to the Ultra Chaos Piknik would take about three and a half hours, mainly though winding country roads, once we’d gotten out of the Warsaw Friday afternoon traffic. I enjoyed the drive, though, despite the rollercoaster like conditions at times, made reading Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinksy a little difficult. We passed lots of small towns and villages, a lot of pretty little places, most of them seemed to have cosy little pubs and bistros, as well as grandiose churches. Even the smallest villages had these dramatic looking churches, a reminder of how prevalent the big bloke in the sky is in this country. Also, it seems like all you have to do to learn Polish is just remember to stick a “Y” on the end of everything. Like my dad’s take on Spanish with the “O” at the end of everything. I noticed a bunch of shops called “Deleketessy” which was where this particular theory took route.

The fest was practically in the middle of nowhere, just a small field off the side of a country lane with a ramshackle wooden stage and a bunch of stalls around the perimeter. There were lots of crust punks swarming around drinking heavy glass bottles of beer as we pulled the van up in front of the entrance. There was a band playing as we pulled up that looked like a right bunch of character. Some big skinhead on vocals in a ruffled shirt, prancing around like a tit. I opened the door and a flood of silly keyboard, chanty vocals and daft guitar entered the van. I pulled the door immediately shut. Andy, pained in the back of the van, “What the fuck was that? Ridiculous mix of ska and Oi!.?”

“SkOi!” I retorted, totally chuffed with myself.

Our old friend Mike Champagne was here today, playing with his band Ohyda. They were travelling with the band Chain Cult from Athens. It was good to see him. I’d been in touch with him the day before, asking if he could lend us a guitar as backup. He was more than happy too. He was already doing the same for Anti-System, the old UK band that were also playing. He even offered to lend us his amp. True gent. We hung out by the entrance, which is where they a little party tent to set up the merch. Mike was drinking some 1% craft beer which tasted pretty damn good. Apparently the micro brewery phenomenon has hit Poland too, although I’m sure it hasn’t hit this festival.

The bands were running a little late, so it was looking more like 11 pm as opposed to our scheduled 10.10 pm. It had been a long day so I was really hoping it wouldn’t be any later. With it only being 7pm now there wasn’t much to do than have a walk around, look at the food and merch stalls, check out the Polish crusty crowd and wait. Another old UK band, Active Minds were playing as we made our way to the stage area. Pretty fun seeing the two of them on stage, blasting out songs at high speed. I stood and reflected over how it must be to have been a band of just two people for over thirty years, and that with your brother, too.

The food at this place was bang on. They had loads of great vegan scran on the go, and they’d given us three meal tickets meaning I could spread out my evening with an array of different cuisines. I ordered a pakora at this small stall behind were we stood that looked the biz. The guy who ran the stall was some guy with a big gut, sat on a deckchair ordering his two young sons around. To my surprise, they gave me three huge pakoras. I was only planning on a snack since the two hour barrier to stage time had just passed, but they were so good I munched the lot of them down. Pretty spicy sauce on them too, maybe not the best for stage.

The sun was starting to sink in the sky, and the temperature with it. Thomas had taken the van off somewhere and wasn’t due back until 9.30 so we went back to the merch tent and hung out there for a while. The Chain Cult guys were set up beside us and we got talking to them for a while, mainly about shows in Greece. They told us that they really wanted us to come down there and play, saying it would be amazing, They book shows, so it would be fun to check that out later. I did a fart, proper pakora must to it, and blamed it on the portaloos opposite us. Andy picked up on it, but seemed to buy my story.

People watching at these places is always an experience. There was some last of the mohicans bloke with this beautiful dog in a big cage muzzle. The dog looked distressed and Last of the Mochicans just looked bored, so don’t really know why they were there. Then there was this other guy, the “festival guy”, walking around in nothing but flip flops and ill fitting sweatpant shorts, his huge gut and tits flopping around everywhere. Jon took a shine to him immediately and baptised him to “Farsan”, which is Swedish for dad. A while later Farsan appeared on stage. There was this pretty fucking lame rock band playing, all pork pie hats and sunglasses, who were apparently quite big in the 90’s. They were called Komety, further strengthening my theory. Sounded like Moneybrother singing in Polish. Farsan was up on stage singing backing vocals into the bass players mic. The guitarist/singer on the other side of the stage rocking along. I assumed that Farsan was a friend of the band since he knew all the words and was up there for fucking ages. But then when he made his way over to the other side of the stage to start singing double with the guitarist bloke, a couple of perplexed looking stage hands turned up and tried to pull him away. There was no budging the big bastard though, and then another couple of other stage hands turned up and tried to remonstrate with him, but just kind of stood there with their hands on their hips as the lead singer/guitarist tried to get on with the show. Eventually they pulled Farsan off the stage, but the fucker was still shout/singing as they pulled him past the bass player’s mic again. Fucking brilliant.

Back at the merch, the Anti-System drummer was hanging out, and when he caught sight of Andy, shouted over to him, “Hey guys, you’re Victims right? We played with you years ago, I always loved your band!”

Andy jumped into conversation with the friendly old boy, “Yeah, that's right, in the UK, like twenty years ago I think”.

Vangelis, the Chain Cult drummer, stood beside me and laughed, “You guys are old!”

Just as Anti-System were starting up, Thomas arrived in the van, driving it slowly through the small field, headlights burning, workers from the fest manically trying to get drunk punx who were lying in the path of the van to move the fuck out of the way. It was nice being able to sit in the van for a while before the show, to warm up. It hadn’t gotten pretty cold out and I hadn’t had a drop to drink so was really feeling it. I watched the end of Anti-System after having gone with Mike to fetch his amp and put it on stage. Love watching these old guys play. Agga, the bass player was thundering the shit out of her bass. I heard we’re playing with both these guys and Active Minds tomorrow in Wroclaw, so it’s a bit of a package tour. I got talking to the singer after they came off as we were waiting for the stage to be cleared. He was a really nice old guy. Told me he was fifty four and had been playing in bands since he was twelve. Fucking inspring.

It was hard to tell how our show was going to be. It was dark by now and hard to see how much of the crowd was interested in us. But being that we were one of the main bands on the bill, I hoped it was going to be okay. Our new album was released today, so this was I guess our release gig for it. We were playing six new songs, of which four we’d never played live, so it would be interesting to see how the punx reacted. I always have the same feeling at these gigs, though. As much as Victims is a known, old band in the crust scene, we’ve never been particularly crusty, and I can only imagine we’re a disappointment to look at for some of the punx. And the new songs are a long way from the old records. There were two guys down the front, grotty as fuck, who obviously didn’t know who we were as we stood on stage setting up, complaining that we should stop fucking around and start playing. He seemed a bit annoyed. I thought it was funny at first but he soon started getting on my tits. It always takes a bit of time, especially for Andy, when you’re playing on totally unfamiliar equipment. I guess the punx didn’t know that, though.

When it was time to start, I really felt buzzed, despite the pinch at the bottom of my back. Old Chiropractor Mike hasn’t cracked the puzzle of my spine just yet it seems. It felt good to be playing again though, and opening in silence, just me playing the long guitar intro to The Horse and Sparrow Theory, felt pretty fucking cool. It was good to be back. The set went pretty well for a first show in just under a year, apart from when one of the other new songs, Fires Below, fell apart at the end and came to a stop with Andy shaking his head. Fuck it, it is punk rock, after all. Right?

We finished the set on This is the End and then went to leave, but despite a large chunk of the crowd thinning off in search of food, the forty or so who were left were robust in their demands for an encore. The monitor guy, who didn’t speak much English, just pointed at his watch when Johan asked him if we had time. I tried to gesture with fingers, asking if we had two minutes, five minutes, or whatever, but he just kept pointing at his watch. I just walked back on a started making noise. I started jamming some rock ass riff, thinking it was funny, but Andy just looked at me annoyed and made the schithing sign across his neck at me, not amused in the slightest. After that we just banged out Circles and Scars and then went off again. Apart from the one almighty balls up, it felt like a good show. Mike asked me how it sounded on stage, he said that it sounded a bit grainy out front, but I assured him it sounded it good on stage.

As I was lobbing the gear in the back of the van in the pitch black behind the stage, some big muscly, friendly faced guy came up to me. “I just want to say to you… Excuse me, I do not speak good English and am influenced by alcohol. I do not like d-beat. But… You guys… Kicked my ass. I am shocked!” Really sweet guy. His name was Thomas. I liked him. I spoke to him for a while after that.

I’d been looking forward to a chill out and an aftershow beer all day, but now that everything had gotten late and tiredness was creeping in on me unresisted, I almost forced myself to go to the bar with one of the beer tickets in my pockets and buy one. More as a symbolic gesture than anything. The beer tent was behind the stage in the dark. It was just a table with small a fridge behind it under a tarpaulin roof. I went up to this young kid who seemed to be working there, but looked bored. I asked him for a beer. He asked me which beer I wanted. There seemed to be two options. “The one on the top shelf, what kind of beer is that? Is it a bit darker?” I enquired.

“It’s just a beer. Same thing, just a different brand”. I laughed and said, “Ok, I’ll go for that then. It looks cold anyway, that’s the main thing”.

“Nah. It’s not that cold, he said. Great.

I managed about half of the heavy brown bottle, tepid malt pilsner, before pouring it away. Waste of time.

We stood at the back of the small field and watched most of Ohyda’s set, eating these large fried perogies from this indian stall, which were absolutely superb. Given that I had two meal tickets left, I had two of the buggers. And then regretted it straight after. Now I wa just extremely full, sober and tired. We’d sold next to fuck all in merch. I don’t think anyone had. It was hidden in the dark at the back of the site by the entrance, and it didn’t really look like a merch crowd. We decided to get Thomas to drive the van out, back through the field, before Chain Cult started, so as not to look like cunts driving through the crowd as they played. We didn’t quite make it, they’d just started as we snaked through crusty punx lying steamboats in the dirt. This one tool was sat, slobbering on a fag and a beer, with Thomas headlights blasting in his coupon from a distance of about a meter. He shuffled forward about two inches and waved at Thomas to continue past him. I literally had to pick him up by the armpits and shuft him off to the side.

We watched a bit of Chain Cult but we were all flaking like fuck. The place we were staying at was only a ten minute drive and the thought of bed was too much to resist. And we have a six and a half hour drive to Wroclaw tomorrow so need to get up around eight, meaning we were already under six hours sleep. On the way out we bumped into our old friend, Milosz, he was a little drunk and telling us that he really liked the show and that he really liked the new songs.

I was very pleased with that. Milosz isn’t the easiest critic to win over. It was really nice to see him anyway, however brief. As we drove off into the dark roads, the voice on Thomas’ GPS had been switched to a Darth Vader voice. Jon was sat in the dark in the back of the van, laughing, “And there kicked that weed in”. Chuffed.

The hotel was some agritourism/sports resort off some dirt road. As I was getting out of the front on the van, Jon was farting around with the side door, which is a bit stiff since there is a big dent in the side. Just as I closed my door Jon stumbled back and I punted the door into his back. I said sorry but the fucker had a bit of a go at me. Not really sure I managed to close the door on him really.

There was some thin, pale guy stood waiting outside for us to show us to our room. The Anti-System guys had just pulled up too. I guess he’d be up for a few more hours yet, since all the bands were staying here. The room was decent enough, six beds in it. There was no curtain on the window, though, so we had to hang a thick bed quilt over it. Thomas went to sleep in the van, saying he’d spare us his snoring. I don’t think it would have disturbed me tonight, though. I was out almost as soon as my head hit the huge pillow, that was about half the size of the bed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

St. Petersburg

The first time I ever saw Kev was at the Willow Room in Corby. I must have been sixteen, I guess. Our friend Roddy had booked an all day show there and one of the main bands was this lot he knew from Nottingham, they were called Hard to Swallow. I’d never heard of them before. Nobody had, I guess, since it was their first ever show. I had no idea what to expect. There were five or six of them in the band, quite a bit older looking than us, and they all looked hard as fuck. Like, proper “don’t fuck with us” types. What caught my attention more than anything, though, was the fact that they had two singers. One of them had red spiky hair and these intense eyes, he looked totally unhinged as he stood there waiting for the gig to start. When they did begin, all hell broke loose. It was manic, spastic hardcore and the singer with the spiky red hair and intense eyes was completely freaking out as he screamed into the mic, like, completely all over the place, as if he was recieving an unholy series of electric shocks. This, I would soon find out, was Bloody Kev. I could have no idea then, of course, how interlocked our futures would become.

Weird thing is, for some reason an argument kicked off between the Nottingham crew and a bunch of Corby twats at the gig and the HTS van ended up getting rocks and eggs thrown at it as they dashed off after the show. Fuck knows what that was all about.

Anyway, that gig was the first major turning point in my life. I’d never heard such brutal sounding hardcore punk before, I’d never seen a band play so viciously on stage before, and I’d never seen a band with two singers. I didn’t even know that was a thing. It changed the way I thought about music and it inspired us later on to have Speedhorn as a dual vocal band. I’d never have imagined for a second back then that Kev would later on become one of those two singers, and one of my best mates. I’d also come to learn that Kev is blind as a bat and without glasses or contact lenses has a weird, intense eye thing going on. Although the person on stage is a projection of who he is in a sense. He is fucking mental at times. In a good way. Most of the time.

As interlocked as our futures would become, playing in the same bands and touring the world together, becoming really close friends and all, there is another weird connection between Kev and I. We share the same birthday. Exactly ten years apart. Although me telling everyone that last little detail hasn’t always been thoroughly popular with Kev. Although we’ve known each other for almost twenty years, we’ve rarely spent our birthday together. There was the one time we were on tour and had a day off in Ljubljana, which turned fucking epic, due to us finding a bar serving vicious cocktails for about 50 pence a pop. Other than that, I usually just wake up to a text message on the morning of the day, “Happy birthday cunty”, or something to that measure. Last year, though, was different. It was my fortieth, which meant of course, Kev’s fiftieth. Ninety fucking years between the two of us! There was no way my wife, or our friends, were going to let that one go by without a party.

As much as Kev said he didn’t want any fuss, Jen sorted a really nice do for us here at our place. She made this great bar in the entrance to our garage around the back of the house and we had a parking lot party with a whole bunch of friends. Kev told me it was the best birthday he’d ever had, which made me really happy. What really blew me away though, was that Jen had arranged with all of our friends to buy us a trip to St. Petersburg. Flights and hotels all taken care of. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve had a bit of an obsession with Russia for a long time, and I’m always banging on to the Victims guys about going to play there since we get gig offers all the time, but it never happens. Although if those guys thought that chipping in for this trip for us was going to quench that particular thirst, they’d be mistaken.

I don’t really know what it is with Russia. It’s actually Eastern Europe in general. I think it started when I was a football obsessed kid and found all the teams from the east, with these exotic sounding names like Lokomotiv, CSKA, Spartak et. al really fascinating. And then as I got older and interested in history and social politics the interest in the east just grew. To be finally going to Russia was something I couldn’t quite get my head around as my daughter Polly presented us with the present in front of all our smiling friends. Felt like fucking crying.

Of course, it’s Russia. It was never going to be simple. I was aware that you needed a visa to get in, and that it wasn’t just a matter of turning up in your holiday best and wafting your passport. Although there were some pretty mental required fields on the application, like your parents jobs, your social media accounts, dates and locations of every trip you’ve made over the last ten years, your last three passport numbers, a print out of an official invitation from the hotel you’re staying at… it didn’t take all that long to suss out. You then had to print out the form and make an appointment with the Russian visa office and send off your original passport with the application, if the interview at the visa office was deemed to have gone well. Kev had a look on some internet chat boards and found some Russians saying about how the Russians like making it particularly awkward for Americans and Brits when travelling to their country since we make it so hard for them when the shoe is on the other foot. Fair enough, I guess. There was one little moment at the end of my interview, though. After going through the form, speaking about what our intentions with the tip was etc, the woman asked for my passport and bank card to pay for the visa, which would cost 350 kronors. When she saw my British passport she said, without even a hint of a smirk, “Oh, you’re British citizen. Then it costs more. 1300 kronors”. Fucking arse. Next time I go at least I’ll be carrying a Swedish passport…

Jen felt a little bad about the fact that she'd booked Kev on an early flight out of Gatwick, but there were no direct flights from London to St. Petersburg, so Kev was going to meet me at Arlanda for a flight from here. I assured Jen that Kev was used to travelling early. He always goes for the piss cheap flights with Ryanair or whoever when he’s travelling, which usually entails getting up at the arse end of dawn. As I expected, he looked perfectly perky when I met him by passport control, despite the fact he’d left home at three am. Sometimes it feels like there's been a mix up somewhere with our dates of birth. The energy he has puts me to fucking shame at times.

As we sat there on the plane, waiting to taxi, we were going through the plans we had for the weekend. We’d hopefully get to the hotel around four pm, which should leave us plenty of time to explore some stuff tonight. The thing that’s great about Kev is that he’s a perfect holiday match for me. We like doing the same things, namely: walking, looking at obscure shit, looking at old building, punk rock, art, veggie food. In the Speedhorn days we’d always fuck off together if we had a day somewhere, leaving the rest of the lads to sit and stew in the van. We decided that tonight we’d simply just walk, no particular aim, just walk and look at St. Petersburg. Jen had booked us a hotel which seemed to be in the middle of everything, so from there we could just explore and then find some decent dinner somewhere later on. The next day we had a hook up with a guide, some guy called Krzys who was an acquaintance through the punk scene. Jeff from Hello Bastards had met him when they played here last year, and he’d told him about us coming. Apparently he was up for showing us around the real St. Petersburg. Seemed like a great plan.

We’d barely left the ground, still in the very first stages of the climb to the clouds, when a rank smell wafted our way. I looked around, assuming someone had dropped their guts, but couldn’t locate the source. Then I noticed a few rows ahead and across the aisle, some old pair chomping on hard boiled eggs. The dirty bastards. Fucking stinking the place out. Kev looked at me and laughed, chuffed, “Fucking different rules where we’re going Gaz!”

The flight over was just over an hour, really just a hop over the Baltic. Funny but Russia always seems so far away, but I guess that has more to do with just a false geographical perception. As we came into land we flew in low over what I guessed was some suburb of the city. I’ve never seen compact living like it in my life. Just gigantic blocks, long row upon row upon row of tower block buildings. It seemed to sprawl on forever, an ocean of grey. It matched perfectly the picture of Russia portrayed in the Moodysson film, Lilja 4 Ever.

Obviously, the positive side of going through the whole rigmarole with the visa application was that there was barely any fuss at customs once we landed. The stern looking young woman in the uniform glanced at my passport and then waved me through. No smiles. Not that I was expecting any. We jumped in a cab, taking heed of the warning we’d been given about booking it through the official desk inside the airport. It was about a twenty minute trip. The driver was this huge wrestler looking guy with a neck the width of the Volga, Kev noticed he had some tattoo on his wrist which signalled that he belonged to some secret society, or Kabbalah, that he was aware of. Much more Kev’s domain than mine, all I knew was that I wouldn’t fuck with the guy.

The hotel was indeed right in the middle of the city, within walking distance of the Winter Palace and the Church of the Saviour on Blood. First impressions were good. I kind of expected no less, given that Jen had booked the hotel. I can sleep in a squat or in a five star hotel, I’m happy either way. Jen, though, has left that attitude behind her as the years have passed, she feels she’s done enough of the sleeping rough game and has made peace with herself that now we’re entering the maturer years of our lives and we can afford it, only four star and above will do. All the same, I wasn’t expecting complimentary champagne at check in. Kev was nigh on astounded, “Fuckin hell Gaz, Jen has got good taste!” he chirped as he swilled the bubbles down his throat. As if the trip alone wasn’t enough, this hotel was a really wonderful gesture on top.

After chilling out in our room for an hour, Kev observing all the little luxuries about the place like hand wipes and free nuts, as well as dubiously reading the information channel on the TV which gave helpful tips about how to react in the face of a terrorist attack or bomb strike, we head out into the late afternoon, ready to explore St. Petersburg.

The first thing that struck us was how European the city looked, and felt. I know that the city was built by Peter the Great with the intention of rivaling the great cities of Europe that he so admired, but I still expected to feel more of a Russian vibe to the place, whatever that may be. But the long avenues could have easily belonged to Berlin, Paris or London. The colours were different, though, somehow. An array of fantastical, shiny greens and blues, and the golden domes on the buildings, as if the city was a display of grandeur at the entrance gate to this vast land to the east. Which I guess was old Pete’s very idea. But the young people swarming the streets looked every bit as free, easy and modern as their west european counterparts. But we soon began to notice small hints of the Soviet shadow, creeping through the cracks of the gleaming streets. There were souvenir shops everywhere, literally hundreds of them, all of them selling Russian dolls and small, cheap Fabergé eggs. What especially caught the eye was that every shop seemed to sell Putin posters of t-shirts, in all forms of display, but not seldom with his top off fighting a bear or doing something else “manly”. I wanted to take a photo of it, but for some reason felt the need to do that inconspicuously, as if I’d be adjudged to be taking the piss, which of course, I kind of would have been. I don’t know why but I got the feeling that rocking up in Russia and taking the piss out of Putin wasn’t the best idea. On this topic, I started laughing to myself after recalling a song Kev made up about Putin one time: I boofed Pootins mum, it wasn’t up the bum. Pootins ma son, Pootins ma son.

Probably best left unrecited in our present location, too.

We walked along to the magnificent Blood Church, which was only about ten minutes away, finding it to be exactly as you’ve seen it on the hundreds of images in the media. Only the protective covering on the spire took the shine off of things a little. Kev complained, saying it looked like a big fucking sock. But still, the building was incredible. Pretty fucked up when you think about it, how much these holy buildings must have cost to build, all shiny gold and shit, whilst the peasants inside them praying had fuck all. We had a look around inside and viewed some amazing artworks, shuffling around in hushed reverence, and then carried on walking. It was the perfect weather for a stroll, and the light was eerily dampened by the slowly setting sun. We walked for the next four hours. With no particular aim, we didn’t need one.

First we came to the river, where we found a bunch of old stereo parts sat on the stone wall guarding the water. Just left there. It was a strange contrast with the otherwise spotlessly clean streets. Then we walked over one of the long bridges and found ourselves, unbeknownst at first, in the Fortress of Peter and Paul. By the time we got there the light was perfect, just a dark blue as the last of the sun's rays lit the yellow tower of the main church in the square. There were very few people there beside us, leaving the place almost silent. It was a fantastic experience, hard to put into words. The various statues of Peter, the weird looking tall bloke with the small head and the fetish with dwarves, he really did seem like a proper fiend. The statues of rabbits everywhere, as well as the busts of the countries favourite sons and revolutionaries. I could have walked around there all night. It was simply breathtaking. But there was so much more to see, and so little time.

We walked back across the river via another of the bridges, which brought us right into the heart of the Palace Square, home of the beautiful Winter Palace, the scene of the takeover of the provisional government’s takeover by the Bolsheviks. It was as magnificent in appearance as I’d imagined. We toyed with the idea of going inside, since it is a museum, but given that the night was already rolling in and we’d soon be needing dinner, we decided against it. I imagine you’d need at least a couple of hours in there. The Palace Square was buzzing with Friday night’s merriment. There were street musicians and artists, and lots of young people enjoying the start of the end of their week, drinking beer and wine, eating picnic or take out food. There was also a long line of young soldiers, very young most of them, forming a parade of some sorts as a couple of tanks marched around the square. “Now it feels a bit more like Russia” Kev commented.

We found a pretty cool vegan restaurant, what would you do without Trip Advisor?, just a few blocks away from our hotel. We had a drink there with the food and then made our way back to the hotel. Kev was finally starting to feel the burn off his early rise, so we decided we’d take a nightcap at the cosy looking pub on the top floor of the hotel before bed. There was barely anyone left by the time we got there, so we took a stool at the bar and engaged in conversation with the young bartender who looked chuffed to see us. The place actually brewed its own beer on site, which I thought was great, Kev couldn’t give a piss, though. The bartender poured us each a pint of his own favourite ale and then insisted he pour us a shot of the local poison. After minimal persuasion I accept. Kev is already on his second by the time I’ve supped mine, “Come on Gaz, live a little!” he chorts, clearly chuffed, and clearly over his bout of tiredness. However the fuck does the old sod do it?

Had an absolutely golden night’s sleep, and woke up fresh as a daisy, ready for a day of exploring with Krzys. We found a really hip little vegan café, just down the road from the Blood Church. We sat there and noshed on black coffee and vegan omelette, muesli and yogurt, or soygurt, and then headed back to the hotel. It was a glorious day. We sat in the lobby bar at the hotel and waited for Krzys to call. He was there only a few minutes later, big smile on his face, delighted to make our acquaintance. He was a young looking fella, flat cap and sunglasses. He told us that he was from Poland but had been living here for a few years and worked as a bike courier, as well as having his own tour guide business, that had a purely Polish clientele. So he knew all the history of the place. He was happy to show us around for as long as we wanted today, free of charge, happy to help some fellow punks out. What a great hook up. I felt a little bad, though, since today was his only day off this week, and he had a young family at home. I asked him where he lived, “Out there in the sleeper town, you probably saw it on the way in when you were landing”.

We set about the day, ready to walk. And that we did. Almost eight hours. Krzys told us he was going to show us the real St. Petersburg, the side of the city you wouldn’t see as a tourist. Being a courier he had knowledge of all the city’s nooks and crannies, as well as that, he was a punk, so he would also show us the places where that was happening, too. Absolute perfect set-up. Before we got started for real, he asked us if we’d like to take a guided rooftop tour. Apparently his friend ran a business taking tourists on the roofs of the city. He told us that he was always booked up, every weekend, but if we wanted he could arrange to fit us in for an hour. It sounded great. I asked him how much it would cost and how we paid for it. “Oh, cash, it’s not completely legal”. Kev and I cracked up. Love the punks. Same everywhere.

That booked in for the afternoon, we began a hike around the grand city of St. Peter. The city is full of these “yards”, as Krzys called them, hidden behind the facade of the grey stone tenements. They were basically inner courtyards, but gated off. Krzys had codes to a lot of the places, otherwise we’d just wait for someone to come out and shuffle in before the iron gate closed. They were really cool, though. When you walked into them the buzz of the traffic from the main streets seemed to dampen, and it felt like you’d walked into a time portal, a few decades backwards. A lot of the houses themselves had these wonderful broad stairwells, covered in patterned tiles of marble, that at one time or another had obviously belonged to the richest of the city, but today were somewhat worn out. We checked out a few of these places, weaving our way through the city via it’s inconspicuous “yards” for a couple of hours. Krzys showed us the punk house where Hello Bastards played, which was kind of right in the middle of the city. Right there and then I thought about Andy Victims, and him telling me upon receiving this amazing present that he hoped I would stop hassling him about touring Russia. No fucking chance.

By mid afternoon we arrived at one of the city’s main squares, where we’d meet the rooftop tour guide. He was another young guy, fresh faced and smiling broadly. He suggested a few nice spots where there were great views of some of the city’s finest buildings, as well as a place next to the river. We set off, just a few blocks, and then walked through the main entrance of an old apartment building, taking the small iron elevator all the way to the top. When we alighted the lift we walked up another half stairway to a steel door with flaking brown paint and a little keyhole. Our guide pulled out a large iron ring with an array of keys hanging from it and laughed, “I’ve got the keys to the city”. We ducked through the door and came out on to the flat roof of the building which offered a panoramic view of the city and it’s many golden domes and spires. It was quite a sight. Like Krzys, the guide was very knowledgeable on all the different buildings and their history. This city has its fair share of that...

We stayed up there for a while, taking pics and admiring the view. And then walked on to the next place which was the building Krzys was really eager to show us, the place next to the river. It was the same deal again, in through an innocuous old apartment building and up to the top and a small rusty door. We crept through it and into the delepdated attic of the house, creeping under croaking rafters and walking along floorboards that acted as gangways across the debris of bricks and dust. At the far end of the attic was a short but very steep wooden ladder that led out through a skylight window. We squeezed through, at a bit of a pinch and not entirely comfortable on the old back, and out on to a long, slanted green copper roof. This was nowhere near as comfortable for me. I don’t have an overbearing fear of heights, but enough to make the legs wobble a little. The roof didn’t just slant off to the edge and drop off eight floors, though. There was a small brick wall along the edge of the house. Still shat myself a little though when the guide sat himself on it, legs dangling over the side, and lit up a cig, waving at the tourists boats way below that were cruising along the river. It took me a while to get used to it, but I eventually joined the others and sat there on the side, trying to relax whilst enjoying the vista. The sun had been hidden behind the clouds for a couple of hours previous, but now it was shining in all it’s glory and that moment on the roof was made all the more special, for it. Now this really was something you wouldn’t find at the travel agents.

We sat there basking in the sun, the legs never quite getting to 100%, and then the guide was on to his next party. The three of us headed back to the streets and carried on about our walking. Before long we came upon a Anna Achmatova museum. It was a really nice little place, basically a green little courtyard garden with decorated with various statues and images of the great Russian poet, as well as a little information hut and shop. I was hoping they would have a copy of her work Requiem in English but no luck. Oddly, though, there was some guy sat at an organ under a tiny little tarpaulin tent, just big enough to house the organ and its player. He was just there with his back to us, playing some sorrowful tune. Weird.

With the idea of finding Requiem now firmly implanted in my bonnet I went about looking for books shops that might have. We found a few cool spots, but nothing that had the book I was looking for. I did find a nice little place that sold handmade soft toys ran by some middle aged woman who looked like a bit of a bohemian. Krzys translated for me as we conversed. There were a lot of cool little cat figures, hand knitted, wearing different striped colours. I picked one out for Polly. Later Krzys told me that the city has a very special relationship to cats, for it was cats that saved the city from starvation during the Nazi siege. The cat population was as good as wiped out as the starving citizens fed on them to stay alive. Krzys told me that cats have an almost sacred position in the city ever since. How fucked up a race we are…

We’d been walking and sightseeing for almost five hours straight now. We stopped by a hole in the wall for some falafel that K told us was the best in the city. It was indeed top fucking notch. As the afternoon was running away with us we began to discuss what we’d prioritise for the rest of our adventure. I didn’t want K to feel like he had to stay with us the whole night, he had done more than enough already. I told him I’d very much like him to get home in time to read his young kid a goodnight story, and he assured me he would. Before that though he would take us to a part of town, a market area where there was a punk record shop and a couple of bars. The metro station closest to it was apparently the deepest in Europe, too. I figured it would be fun to pick up a record by a local band if there was any going, and a beer sounded appealing, too. I was starting to feel parched.

The market place was pretty place was pretty cool, and to my disbelief, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the record store was a bootleg print of a Victims poster. Really nice print, too. It just confirmed to me that Victims must come and play sometime. The guys would just have to face that fact. I didn’t find any records of interest though, and to be honest, the need for beer had now taken precedence. As much as I really wanted to see the real Russia, the real “east.” fuck me was I happy to find a hipster bar serving hipster IPA. Russian, no less! Kev was less impressed, of course. I was absolutely gagging and the cold condensation running down the side of the glass, just the feel of it running on my fingers as I held the glass, had my mouth watering. We must have walked around thirty kilometers today. And we weren’t quite done yet.

It was by now early evening, around eight pm, but K wanted to show us one final building that he insisted was a must. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Situated down by the river, everything about this building was immense. The pillars, the dome, the gardens behind it. It was just incredible, even more so in the moody, bruised sky behind it. K pointed out that if you looked closely you could see tens of bullet holes in the concrete, a haunting reminder of the war. It was a spectacular end to the day. We walked along to a bar and sat outside of it, treating to K to another beer before he finally made his way home for the evening. We’d been blown away by his hospitality. We could not have dreamed of such a bonus when this trip was given to us. K told us he had some Polish clients to meet at the airport tomorrow, so he would meet us at the hotel and take a cab with us. We waved him off and then took a slow walk back to the hotel, smirking to ourselves as we walked through Palace Square and saw some old drunk giving one of the street buskers some shit about something.

We dropped our bags and shopping items off at the hotel, got showered and then headed for some veggie Indian restaurant that was nearby. There was only us and one other couple there, and the young lady serving, who immediately caught Kev’s eye. “It’s amazing how good looking everyone is here”, he said. “The younger ones anyway. Don’t know what happens when they get older, their skin turns to leather and they wrap a scarf around their ‘eds.”

After dinner we made for a bar that K had tipped us about, called Bukowskis. The name in itself appealed greatly. The truth was, though, after the day we’d had already, we were exhausted. The beer was wasted on me, it just sat heavily in my gut and sloshed around. The young, hip crowd in the bar and the loud music made me feel every day of my share of our ninety years. After just the one, we headed back to the hotel. The pub bar was closing already, and our bartender friend from the night before didn’t seem to have the same interest in us now, which left me feeling a little shunned, I have to say. Maybe he was as tired as we were. But having perked up, just the tiniest amount on the last walk home, we felt like one last beer before bed, so we took one in the lobby bar. There was only one bartender, looking bored off his tits, and a couple of young girls dressed up to the nines, looking very middle class Russian. After a short while a couple of young lads turned up, and for the next twenty minutes I observed them gleefully. One of the young lads was as a quiet as a mouse, obviously very nervous in front of the girls. The other guy, diamond blonde hair slicked back with tits muscles almost bursting through an extremely tight, light blue shirt, was like a fucking cartoon. He was brash and loud, grabbing one of the girls that was obviously “his” all over the place, whilst she just laughed on, looking completely impressed. Tit Muscles then went stumbling to the bar, not like drunk, but just the most over the top swagger, and demanded a bottle of vodka, which he then banged down on the table and harried his friends into drinking. I swear I could read the young, geeky looking bartender’s thoughs… You absolute fucking wanker! Top class entertainment.

The next day we found a restaurant serving breakfast just around the corner, on one of the quieter streets. We sat there in the sun, enjoying strong coffee, feeling not quite ready to go home. We had a couple of hours to kill, though, and our bags were stored in the baggage room at the hotel. The streets were packed with some parade. Loads of young kids dressed in military uniforms, waving flags, cuddling parents and friends. I figured that it must have been like, graduation day from military school, or something. “Now this feels a lot more like Russia,” Kev commented. I guess it did. For all the European flavour to this city, at least on the surface, there is something else here, something unlike our place. Something kind of quiet, but prominent. I guess those Putin t-shirts everywhere aren’t that quiet…

We tried one last souvenir shop before returning to the hotel for our bags. Something about it caught our eye. It looked like all the others, except that it was gleaming a little brighter, it looked like the Fabergé eggs and the Russian dolls were a lot more expensive at this place. We ventured in to find a team of striking looking young women greet us. One of them attached herself to us and said she would be our guide, if there was anything we needed help with. A little embarrassed, we said thanks, but we’re just looking, immediately wanting to leave but feeling forced now to look around, I hate these situations at the best of times, and then nervously walked around a bit as the shop staff looked at us. We checked out the basement floor to find more of the same, Putin t-shirts, eggs, dolls, flags… Then the woman who had welcomed us appeared behind us with a tray of vodka shots. “Complementary vodka?” with a big smile on her face. She nodded as if to answer my silent question, Yes, no joke, it’s free. I just kind of felt bewildered, it’s ten thirty in the morning! and politely declined. “Now! Now it feels like Russia!” Kev chirped.