Schönefeld is dreary port of entry. Flickering neon signs and high gloss floors stained by thousands of wheeled suitcases. Eight and a half million humans are shepherded through here every year - according to sources who, for good reason, wish to remain anonymous.
The guards stood outside scabbing durries off unsuspecting passengers. I’d given away half a pack before I realised what was up. Hyenas in poorly pressed uniforms. God forbid a terror event were to ever occur here. It’d be a shambles. The only thing these bastions of civic order want to do is stand around eating canteen sandwiches and discussing the difference between Germany now, and Germany in the early 80s. The wall came down and the middle finger stayed up. The moustaches haven’t changed though. A couple of chevrons, the kind of growth you’d expect to see attached to an overweight NYPD officer in a Scorsese crime flick. Steam rising from vents below the streets, people milling around on wet pavement, woollen docker hats and blue jeans. An old black town car parked at an odd angle, doors open, dead mobsters hanging out of it.
You get the idea.
I was on my way out, having just spent the better part of four weeks traipsing around the city of Berlin. A wonderful, free, and forward thinking place. A place that’s dusted itself off and moved on, but absolutely knows what it did. Twice.
I’d had a friend book my tickets. She worked for Easy Jet, and told me she could get crew seats whenever I wanted. All I had to do was send money and details and I’d be on my way. The ticket from Berlin to Malaga (a journey of almost three thousand kilometres) had cost a mere ten Euros. And as we all know, the Euro is not even a real currency. It was safe to say the deal was good.
I don’t consider myself an overly superstitious person, but I do subscribe from time to time – namely when I fly. I always touch the outside of any aircraft I board. Give the old girl a wee pat. Ask her to deliver us safe. To many, this may be a silly thing. But not to me. I’m a believer.
Flying doesn’t bother me. In fact I love it. Bouncing through a patch of moderate to severe turbulence at 35,000 feet in a pressurised, 1/8th inch steel tube, held together by over 3 million rivets, I’m as happy as Larry. I’ve been known to quite literally shriek with delight. But I understand enough about flight to know how absolutely horrific a catastrophic mid-air failure would really be. Should it happen. At any given time.
It’s not something you’d wish on your worst enemy.
Imagine you’re settling in to watch Fast and the Furious 17, in row 12 of the regular service from… let’s say Berlin to Seoul. Vin Diesel’s bald head has just made its first appearance. A little hard-boiled egg driving a muscle car sideways through the desert, hotly pursued by a gang of murderous thugs. Henchmen of Juanito Yakamishi, the head of a multinational Japanese-Columbian hubcap smuggling ring. Naturally, within the first three seconds (and long before Paul walker – the star of “too fast, too furious, too on fire, too dead” – steps on set all Weekend at Bernie’s like) the film, and some light turbulence, is sending you to sleep.
Before your eye has a chance to open, the plane is in a half inverted, near vertical dive. Pandemonium on levels unimaginable to most cognizant beings. Infernal noise, screaming, crying, alarms, and metal twisting and screeching as the plane begins to disintegrate in mid air. You figure you’ve got two or three seconds of this before you are spat, still strapped to your seat, into the open, oxygen deprived, negative forty degree air. And about two, or three minutes before you slam into a quiet mountainside village, somewhere in Bavaria.
I’ll often search the face of the person next to me and wonder how they’d handle a situation like that. Would they completely lose the plot? Or would they sit, stone-faced in grim acceptance? At the very least, I wonder if this face will be the last I see on this particular level of existence? And, more importantly, will they try to steal my armrest?
I turned to my left and looked at the apparently feeble old man sat next to me, staring out the window. A small black beanie on a closely trimmed head of grey hair. A sharp, grizzled face with a perpetually surprised look on it – like an elderly Claire Danes. A red woollen scarf wrapped round his neck, not one, but two business shirts (white and cream), open over a black T-shirt – finished off by a loose turquoise jacket - the kind you’ll find in abundance at independent gallery openings. On his lap he clasped a wine box with an uneven hole cut in the top.
To my enormous surprise, a black cat - with a white patch over his left eye that looked like he’d just been hit by a small snowball - poked his head out of the hole and stared at me.
Jumping Jesus! I thought, as the old man quickly (but delicately) pushed the things head back down.
He looked at me, and said quietly “Herr Catz”.
I raised my hands - “None of my business mate.”
Apparently, the businessman to my right thought it WAS his business. Business being his game, after all.
Within seconds he’d alerted the flight attendant, a young girl who wasn’t properly trained for this sort of thing. She went straight to the head attendant, who stormed over and demanded an explanation. All of this in German, which I understand very little of. Even the businessman was chiming in. I stared into his soulless eyes until he shut up and sank back into his seat, taking a sudden and serious interest in the panel above his head. Proof that “you fucking rat bastard’ translates easily into any language, provided you stare hard enough.
Eventually the captain came out.
I love pilots. They have to figure complex things out in seconds. They don’t have time for this sort of drama. He looked once at the old man, once at the cat (who had poked his head out to see what all the fuss was about), and once at the head attendant, then said what I imagine must have been ‘Let him fly’.
The old man grinned. I whooped enthusiastically. A victory for the little guy! We even shook hands. The businessman’s cheeks flashed a bright crimson. Yeah, fuck you pal. Eat a massive bag of shit.
It was a strange way to start what turned out to be a very strange trip.
We’d been in flight an hour or two. I was listening to a Dan Carlin podcast on Genghis Khan. Temuchen was somewhere near the end of his feud with the Merkit when I noticed an inflight magazine begin to move slowly in front of my face. It was my old friend again - his bony finger pointing urgently at a photograph of two eagles. They were either fighting, or fucking. I couldn’t tell. One lay on its back, legs above its head, while the other flapped mere inches above, both beaks wide open in noisy protest, talons clashing, flashes of yellow.
The old guy was pointing and speaking, what he was saying I couldn’t understand, but every few seconds he’d stop and let out a mildly high pitch “Ohh oho!”.
I turned to speak to him, a wide smile softened his sharp features…
“Sehr gut eh, Opa!”
“Ja und nein?”
“Ja, das ist gut…und nein, nicht Opa!”
“Oh, tut mer leid.”
He went back to his magazine. I went back to Dan Carlin.
We landed in Malaga and disembarked. I shook hands with the old fella again and walked with him inside. He kept talking in German, clutching Herr Katz in his wine box. No real customs inside the EU. It was the perfect crime. I lost him somewhere near the bathrooms. He shuffled inside to freshen up, and I strode outside for a smoke. The shadows were starting to lengthen, but the temperature was still in the low 30s. I began shedding clothes, fast.
Eventually I was ready to roll and headed down the line of busses outside the terminal, stopping to ask every driver the same question (“Estacion Central?”) until one eventually said “Sí”.
We snaked through the greasy looking tenements that lined the streets. It looked how I imagine Baghdad may have, weeks before the invasion. A deep orange haze, scattered palm trees, power cables, unidentified cables, lots of cables. Dust in the air, people rushing everywhere, most all of them wearing ill-fitting singlets and jandals. No real road rules. Just a nervous tension that seemed to say ‘Get where you’re going, as fast as possible. And whatever you do, don’t die’.
The central station suddenly appeared, it isn’t an elegant building and looks more like a mall, a shit mall. The kind you’d find on the Gold Coast of Australia. But worse. Pointed glass ceilings, brick columns, the smell of diesel and a pervading sense of capitalist despair. I hopped out of the bus and started wandering towards the port. I knew I had to go near the water, in order to get to the thing.
It was dark here, and the shade of the buildings cooled the air a little - although I secretly yearned for the breeze I knew would be whipped up by the Mediterranean in the early evening, just before the dark blue light of dusk has faded to black.
I wandered past sidewalk cafes, mini markets and political offices. Most all closed. Was it Sunday? The Recession? The Game? Who knew? Certainly not me. I was new in town, I didn’t have the rhythm…but I knew it would come. These things take time, patience, and something else – I’m not quite sure.
Finally I hit the main road at the port, turning left towards the ruins of Castillo de Gibralfaro. Gibralfaro has been around in varying forms since the Phoenicians founded Malaga circa 770 BC. A stately old thing, crumbling and in disrepair, yet commanding of your respect. Most of the tourists I saw up there over the next few weeks seemed to treat the place with a subdued sense of awe and introspection. The kind of feeling that befalls people when they suddenly find themselves in front of a Monet.
I saw many a group of young soul searchers come under its spell. They’d arrive jovial and full of sunshine sound - laden with cheap red wine, UE booms, and hash filled cigarettes. As soon as they stopped and realised where they were, they’d sit in silence, arms around each other, staring intently at the dull haze of the Sahara, that heaving yellow fog on the horizon, sand stuck in perpetual suspension on the edge of the sea, somewhere near El Hoceima.
I strolled through the gardens near the Plaza de la Marina. One minute I would find myself in the cool shade of exotic palms, the only sounds being my feet crunching on the gravel, a soft trickle from fountains hidden amongst the groves, and the small parrots who shot through the heavy air like fat green missiles, screeching and squawking.
The next minute I would be striding down a busy, open thoroughfare. Dodging horse and carriage drivers, hat vendors, and tourists in linen who wandered in circles. It could have been 1865, so I knew I was getting closer.
I arrived at the hostel and said my G’day’s. It was situated down a small alley near the bank, in the historic district. A strange place. Certainly not today's Spain, but a fairly well manufactured version of its former self. Cobbles that became deathly slippery after rain, and sidewalk bars full of jovial hubbub. Foreign faces laughing and quaffing, drunks stumbling from seat to seat, covered in sunscreen, skin the colour of uncooked bacon. They stepped over dusty-faced gypsies who sat, bowed with outstretched hands. No euros to spare, sorry, beers aren’t cheap here, and the pound won’t go far after conversion. Have you seen the state of this European pour? Brexit bitch. No more free money for you.
Hostesses stood in the surging crowd, directing people to tables they never intended to sit at. “We’ll just browse the…” – two beers had already appeared. The shackles were on. Someone figured out long ago that the best time to get you is when you’re wandering around a crowded avenida, holiday brain driving your legs, no agenda, possibly a bit of heat stroke. They were trained for it, but the course wasn’t intensive. To most, unsurprisingly, hustling tourists comes easily, and quite naturally.
Waiters dashed here and there, small men and women in small suits - dodging a constant barrage of bad Spanish yelled at them by fat, frustrated faces.
“Why don’t these bloody Diego’s speak English Margaret? DONDE ESTA LOS BAN-YOSS, POR FAR-VOR SEEN-YORAY. ES MUY MUY IMPORTANTAY!”
The waiters shrugged their shoulders and pretended not to understand. You would too. There’s only so much you can take before the seeds of revolution begin to take root.
Let me tell you about the bourgeois…
The hostel spread itself over two buildings, one looked very much like the balcony in Verona where Romeo went to whisper soft words at the top of his lungs to Juliet. The original fuccboi. “You up?” sent ‘innocently’ at 3am. It was an old edifice, shutters and washing strung out to dry. I set my bag down in a well-ventilated room above the alley and went down to make friends with the local cats, and the free sangria.
The first person I encountered was a small Mexican. He bounded up the sweeping marble stairs carrying a compound crossbow. The last place I expected to see one of those, if I’m being honest. But nothing surprised me too much at that time. A day without something bizarre was a bizarre day indeed.
He was selling it, then joining the Foreign Legion, or so he said. (I since know he made good on that and is now somewhere in Mali, fighting Ansar Dine, one bullet in his breast pocket…better that than be taken alive. The curse, and legend, of the legionnaire).
It’s interesting to note that before I left the hostel I noticed an arrow wedged firmly in the guttering of the building next door while I was emptying the bladder one morning. Apparently he’d been firing shots out of the bathroom window. Somehow I don’t imagine he was the first to do that sort of thing here.
Either way, he promised to make me ceviche. A dish I have rather a soft spot for.
“Soy de Mazatlan”, he said, “Donde el pescado es fresco, y las mujeres son hermosa’s”.
Hard to argue with that. He was right. I’ve been to Mazatlan.
The first night dissolved into a swirling palette of colour, music, magic, sangria, cigarette and hash smoke, intelligible chatter in many languages, new friends, new connections, new ideas discussed at length, problems of the universe solved, our own personal universes expanded forever - until, as the sun rose over the hills and lit the restless ocean, we sat in silent introspection on the soft sand. Time meant nothing. We were free. It wasn’t lost on us that Malaga is the birthplace of Picasso…everything in our lives at that point was perfectly disjointed. The way he would have liked.
I was standing outside the hostel later the next morning waiting for Johannes. He was a swede with a shaved head and one long dread. I came to know him very well. An immensely intelligent guy with some of the highest (and most genuine) levels of optimism I’ve ever encountered. I wrote a poem about him once…
“What are you looking at my brother?”
“Everything” he replied
Without a second thought
Sunburn stretched across his face
Staring at a horizon as wide as his smile.
It might have been a man crush if we’re being honest. I found myself smiling uncontrollably every morning as we rambled off to the local café for coffee and smokes. We’d sit in silence and observe the early morning inaction under the awning as we waited patiently for the sun to penetrate the alley and recharge our tired bodies.
It was a hip little joint with baristas who didn’t just know their trade, but lived it. We became friends and they ultimately refused to serve me unless I spoke to them in Spanish. It was fair enough. Having a desperate need for coffee (especially after a heady night) is a good way to learn a language, and I picked it up fast.
I was busy watching the fountain when Johannes appeared, calmly lighting a big spliff. The water bubbled and spluttered and splashed onto the warm cobbles where it immediately evaporated. It was like watching cloud shadow move across an open field, dark to light, you couldn’t hope to outrun it. Science in motion.
“Buenas dia brother.”
“Buenos dia, tu pirata de la norte. Todo bien?”
He stared into my eyes, raised an eyebrow and said slowly…
“Esta pirata bebido demasiado anoche. Me siento como una rata”.
“Tú y yo ambos” I said, patting him on the back, “Pero, café arregla todo!”
It was at this point I noticed a small old man shuffling past the fountain in a turquoise coat, carrying a black cat with a white patch over its eye.
OPA IS HERE
The old man turned and stared at me. Recognition was immediate, an answer followed hot on its heels.
“Nicht Opa…” he said with the slightest hint of a smile.
I looked at the cat, who was looking at me with the kind of suspicious gaze only cats and old women who work in libraries can muster.
‘Wie heißt er?”
“Ahhh, ja, natürlich.”
We shook hands and I gave Herr Katz a wee pat on the head, our first physical interaction.
It turns out Opa spoke English, which helped, because I’d long since reached the outer limits of my German. We invited the motley pair for coffee, and they gladly accepted.
Not much was said in those first hours. I found out his name was Rolf. We were of the opinion that Opa Rolf would tell us everything else in good time, I had many questions, but certainly wasn’t going to push it. We sat and drank our coffees, Johannes and I smoking cigarettes, Opa puffing lazily on an old pipe that left a trail of blue smoke lingering in the morning air. It was a comfortable silence.
Finally Opa Rolf said “I want to show Herr Katz the Picasso museum, he likes paintings very much”.
With that, he stood up and made to leave. We told Rolf to come for a drink that evening if he felt like it. He didn’t make any promises.
We watched him go, had another coffee, and then spent the rest of the morning talking in broken Spanish to the old men feeding fish in the harbour. Silver scales flashed back and forth as they chased the crumbs, which floated lazily in the azure water. It was strangely mesmerising. Once the heat became too much to bear we retired to the relative cool of the gardens – lounging, talking, smoking and eating olives under the palm trees, the trickling of water from a nearby font our constant companion. We achieved exactly nothing. It was, as the poet Ice Cube once said, a good day.
Rolf was waiting when we got back. He’d been inside and introduced himself (and Herr Katz) to everyone. Somehow he’d managed to time his arrival with happy hour, that magical period where free Sangria is dished out to the desperate and poor. Travellers with no money or agenda, trying to make their dollar go further by getting as boozed as possible, for as little as possible.
Happy Hour was scheduled for two hours, but was usually done in 30 minutes. I’d watched this ritual closely in the previous days and concluded that the people running the joint knew what they were doing. As they say, you gotta spend money to make money. You couldn’t fault the strategy. Sangria loosens the purse strings. Sangria with a healthy dose of vodka added to it loosens them even more. Everyone was jovial now, producing Euros they claimed not to have from secret pockets and flaps. Some excreted coins from in and around the anus. Cash was, as they say, being splashed.
Rolf didn’t pay for a drink all night. Every time he finished one, he was presented another. I thought he looked a little uncomfortable with all the charity, but I think he relished the attention – a small, elderly German man, holding court, a mesmerised audience hanging off his every word. Every now and then a hash filled cigarette made its way into his sphere, and he puffed away happily, the stories becoming increasingly wild and unexpected.
“It was around this time I met Paul Bowles in Tangier. He had been living there since 1947. An urchin took me to his room and told he probably didn’t want to see me. He didn’t. So I stood in the corner until he said ‘well, sit down then’. We got on well. I wasn’t a writer and didn’t pretend to be. Paul had young writers turning up at all hours and I think he was sick to death of it. Most of them couldn’t write at all. They seemed more interested in smoking hashish and having sex with the local prostitutes, and each other. I once watched him suck the eyeballs out of a boiled sheep. He offered me the tongue. I politely refused but he said, “Rolf, eat this, it’s good for you”, so I did, and it was a mistake. He just sat there laughing. His wife died here you know, in Malaga, in 1973.”
Later that night a group of us were huddled around a table outside Tragatapas, a street side seafood bar, basically.
Rolf was regaling us with more tales of his travels. His grin had continued to grow wider all night. It may have been the Sangria, or the magic vapours, or the French girl hanging off his arm…possibly even the multiple 3 Euro buckets of beer…it could have been a combination of all of the above.
We ordered a few plates of Langostinos al Ajillo – they didn’t last long. Greedy slurping and the smell of garlic mixed with the chatter and the cigarette smoke and the beer. We may have forgotten ourselves for a second there. Fortunately the food did the trick and before long, we were all making satisfied noises, the focus slowly returning to our eyes.
“I was in France a year ago, with Herr Katz. We stopped in at a cafe in, I can’t remember the town, but I noticed the Gypsies. I don’t know how long some of you have been in Europe, but Gypsies…they cannot be trusted."
This was met by general agreement from the Europeans amongst us, and suspicious glances from everyone else who remembered a similar view of Gypsies held by Germans during the early middle of last century. Opa knew what we were thinking.
"I know this is frowned upon. I was young during the war.”
The story faded to black for a second.
“The point is, on the whole, you can’t trust them. I’ll tell you why. I went into the café and was admiring the pastries. They were beautiful. You know how the French are about pastry. When I went back outside both Herr Katz and my suitcase had gone. They took him. Those…how you say…fucking bastards. I knew he’d be ok, maybe he would have a nice life, and he is a Gypsy cat in his heart. I cannot tell him who to go with. But it is not nice to lose your friend.
I started to walk to the bus station. I wanted to go home as soon as I could. On the way I saw a Gypsy caravan in a field. There were a few of them standing around attending to their skinny horses. I was upset, so I went to ask them to give back my cat. I said, I don’t care about the suitcase. I just want my friend. They play dumb, of course. Then I saw Herr Katz. He strolled out of the wildflowers, through a hedge. Like nothing had happened. That’s him, I said, pointing. Give him back."
“Take him” they said.
"Later that night, I had decided to stay now my companion was back, we were sitting outside the very same café when a young boy of about 5 or 6 came past clutching my suitcase. “Hello!” I said and jumped up. He started to run. The waiter and I chased him down the street until he dropped it – it was heavy you see. Too heavy for a boy of that age to run with. And I am an old man, I could not have gone much further. The waiter grabbed the child and gave him a few good slaps on the bottom. Then sent him on his way. He was crying. Wiping tears from his dirty little face. I don’t know how he got that case. But a 5-year-old thief? Imagine.
Anyway, we left town the next day.”
It went on like this for hours. We didn’t care. There was action and adventure, even sex. Like the time he moved in with a prostitute in Budapest.
“That was only 3 years ago”, he said with a smile.
Later that night we said goodnight to Rolf. The last image I have is of him shuffling down the cobbles, stoned out of his mind, sharing a slice of cold pizza and a private joke with Herr Katz. His high pitched hoots lingering a few seconds after the shadows swallowed him up.
We never saw Rolf again.