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Tales from the Frontier - No. 6
Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; the best of life is but intoxication - Lord Byron
I hadn’t realised how few places there are in this town to get legless. During my youth in the UK there was almost literally a pub on every street corner. Royal Naval recruits were unlikely, on their initiation, to make it a hundred yards down the Strip (Commercial Rd., Portsmouth) because there were that many hostelries. Inns like the Mucky Duck saw more than their fair share of capsizing matelots. In all major cities in Britain only an experienced drunk could stagger to the end of the main drag without falling aft over fo’c’sle if he had half a pint in every pub.
The axe fell on English boozers after drink-driving laws came in but I guess here the local German, French or Swiss beer aficionados have never had the dubious joy of doing a pub crawl. Not much of a crawl if you have to jump in your BMW and motor a kilometre or two to get to the next village kneipe.
They have few establishments in this border town dedicated purely to drink. Most of the food places sell beer but a pub crawl where you’re expected to scoff a plate of chips with every pint is a different kind of challenge. An Irish pub used to stand on one corner but it had so few customers it was finally bought out and converted to an Argentinische Steak House. The Swiss cram in by the canton load for fresh meat because even a McD’s burger cost twice as much in Alpenland. They mostly sip couth wine and not yobbo beer whilst munching their rump or T-bone.
Not that there aren’t a few winos sleeping rough. You can tell them by their clothes. I’m not sure if they put on their shabby drinking clobber to go out tanking up, or they naturally take on the look of the undead clambering from a non-too-recently buried coffin. And they all look surprisingly similar, as if they all might be family members or come from the same graveyard. One thing is sure, but for a few exceptions, they do not demonstrate Byron’s words as to the ‘best of life’. Mind you, having to down glasses of Pils instead of pints of decent real ale would make any beer-lover look like they’d been left out for the bin men. Not that beer is the tipple of choice. From my observation the drink is usually the fiery colourless spirit often referred to as Korn, a kind of schnapps with bells on. Its price reflects how many minutes it was in the barrel before they tipped it in a bottle. The bottles containing this White Lightning are always glass because plastic containers would dissolve like a ginger snap dunked overlong in hot coffee.
Not that intoxication necessarily means over-imbibing in alcoholic beverages. The OED defines the state, besides that of inebriation, as, ‘the action or power of highly exciting the mind; elation beyond the bounds of sobriety.’
The English are familiar with the idea of the excitability of the French and emotional Johnny foreigner, but the Germans and Swiss are associated with a sense of order and dour nit-picking. It is common knowledge that the Germans have no sense of humour (although they did invent the cuckoo clock) and the Swiss idea of fun is creating a chocolate bar the shape of Toblerone. ‘Elation beyond the bounds of sobriety’ therefore would seem an unlikely state of mind for the majority of border dwellers in these parts. That is until the Winter Olympics take place.
You don’t have to trek far in the depths of winter to find a ski slope. I can see the snow-bedecked Alps from the twelfth tee of my local golf course. Elation for the Swiss consists of hearing the hiss of biting ski-edges, the click of knee hitting slalom pole, the blurring vision of descending snow flurries, and beating the bejabbers out of a huge cow bell. An added advantage is that sponsors can flog a lot of expensive precision timers to organisers. The idea of money always excites them.
Sport that requires an outrageous outlay of money for equipment, club membership, or participation, has always excited the Swiss – skiing, tennis, Formula One, roulette, but for the Germans it’s all about the result. What pushes German buttons is winning – what, how or who doesn’t really matter. Anyone who has stood on the jam-packed Berlin ‘fan mile’ knows the feeling, and few win more than the Germans at the Winter Olympics. So, if you want to see the OED’s definition of intoxication in action here, it’s not crawling through a row of back-street boozers, it’s on snow-covered slopes, frozen half-pipes, and makeshift ice-rinks as youngsters battle to emulate their cold weather medal winners.
On the other hand, the writer, being ‘reasonable’ prefers his intoxication in a warm, dry bar. After a few jars, it does seem to be the ‘best of life’ during a winter on the border.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 5
I only go out for getting me a fresh appetite for being alone. – Lord Byron
One thing may be said of a weekend on the border – it is bustling. Several outlet centres have their home here and the out-of-town hordes pour in to pick up cheap jeans, shoes, handbags and other vital necessities. Many shoppers must have families with more members than the Labour Party. They buy by the gross. (That’s 144 for our young readers who haven’t encountered a peck, pole or perch nor a rod, chain or acre).
Once or twice in life I have added a second pair of socks or underwear to my purchases. It saves having to go out shopping next year, but never have I cleared a complete shelf of 34 inch waist, 32 inch inside leg stonewashed jeans as I saw one family quartermaster doing. I was only in the shop because it is a short cut avoiding the crowds queuing out the door for a fatty, tatty, double shot, soya mix crappy latte. (I think that’s what I heard someone calling out). Not that anyone was paying attention since they were huddled over their phones comparing what their pal further up the queue was going to order.
Crowds here are always a pain to negotiate. When I was a kid in the UK there were occasional gatherings of half a dozen shoppers who had saved enough money to make it worth while going into C&A or Marks and Sparks. If there was the smallest possibility of pedestrian collision a long exchange of ‘sorry’, ‘pardon me’, ‘after you’ and so forth ensued. Here, you get a short sharp Swiss elbow, an ice hockey style body-check, or several bruises round the knee area as they swing their overloaded carrier bags to clear the way. Only the Austrians can compare with the Swiss for lack of manners. (What do you mean, I shouldn’t generalise? Whose blog is this anyway?)
Large crowds ensure excellent business for the retailers but wide benefits also extend to the local council in the form of parking fine receipts.
Most traffic signs nowadays, especially in the EU, can be understood by one and all. And of course they may be ignored with equal ease. A huge new multi-storey car park has been built recently but that is pricey and widely avoided. Visitors seem unaware that nearby roads lie in controlled (and patrolled) parking zones. Some Saturdays it feels like I’m back on a packed parade ground during my military service, although the uniforms are less smart and the phalanx of traffic wardens are a lot snappier with their machines than we were with our SLRs.
There was a time when no-parking areas were clearly designated by multiple yellow lines, large coloured signs, and threats of hanging, drawing and quartering for the motorist who dared violate the regulations. That is clearly counter-productive since the new intention is not to prevent illegal parking but collect massive contributions for local government coffers.
French visitors and particularly the Swiss find this annoying. Actually the Swiss have no legitimate complaints because for a parking fine of a few dozen euros they could leave their gigantic SUVs in a side-road and hire them out by the hour to the local hookers. The majority of the wagons are roomier than most hotel suites in the neighbourhood. French drivers are less fortunate. Chances are if you intend to dally romantically in a Citroën deux chevaux then at least one limb will be poking out a window flap. A rumour abounded that the amatory spirit of the French ran to including a 2CV position in their version of the Karma Sutra and also in the vehicle’s operating manual. I cannot confirm this since no one I know is daft enough to own a French car when they can get a BMW/Merc/VW with more leg room.
Crowds at the weekend are not helped by us having a local minor league football team. ‘Minor’ is probably flattering since they are currently in the fourteenth level of German football and are having trouble hanging on to that honour. Their attendances are in treble figures since there’s nothing else to do in Germany on winter Sundays. You can go to church or hang around the football ground drinking lager, singing and barracking the opposition supporters for having a Smurf as a team mascot. One team did have a goat mascot. Our lot celebrated an unexpected victory over them by having an impromptu barbecue. Whether the two facts are related is not known.
So, if you enjoy being bustled by aggressive shoppers, hustled by uniformed flunkies, accosted by young ladies trying to lure you into the back of a camper van, or appreciate being screamed at by banner and scarf carrying football hooligans then our border town is right up your double-parked street.
Personally I follow Lord Byron’s advice and only take a trip out on the weekends to remind me I shouldn’t.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 4
Every day confirms my opinion on the superiority of a vicious life. – Lord Byron
If reports are to be believed, Mexican towns on the US border are packed with drug sellers, buyers, pushers and runners. As far as I know we have only one well-known pusher on our border. Let’s call him Wilhelm. We’ll call him that since it’s his real name. Why the heck should we protect the identity of a criminal?
I haven’t known many criminals in my life, or if I’ve met them I wasn’t aware of their occupation. The one I did know masqueraded as a builder. Let’s call him Bill. That isn’t his real name. I’m not mad. He’s a builder! Got muscles to match and fists the size of a Christmas turkey.
He and Wilhelm have a lot in common, they both like the trappings of a swell life. House, car, exotic holidays, tailored clothes, fine dining, pricey entertainment, the whole nine yards, or 8.23 metres as we say here in Euroland. And both love to flaunt it.
Wilhelm has a huge villa that overlooks the Rhine. It’s got its own dock and boathouse. In his powerboat he can be in France in two minutes and in Switzerland in four. I’m guessing that with some of his powdered products you can be in la-la-land in five minutes. Travel is a wonderful thing. On the other hand, if you lived in such a gorgeous house why would you want to take trips away? I inhabit an apartment the size of the toilet on an Airbus A300 and the airplane’s seats are more comfortable than mine.
Wilhelm owns several cars. He’s very patriotic. He has a classic Mercedes, a BMW Series 7, and a sporty Audi Quattro. I’m more socially responsible with regard to pollution so I use the tram. He’s also got a VW Golf cabriolet for sunny days. Most days for Wilhelm must be sunny because he’s got a permanent tan. I’m a little bit pale. My wife made me buy coloured bed sheets because with white ones she said she was never sure whether I’d come to bed yet. We generally have to take our own sheets when we go on holiday to our extra-economy no-star hotel.
Wilhelm holidays in hotels with more stars than the Milky Way. Black silk sheets to order are probably his choice. He picked up his wife on holiday. She was Miss Thailand or Miss India or maybe Miss Universe – he can afford to go anywhere. She’s certainly the most gorgeous looking lady on this planet. Not that my lady isn’t a looker. She came third in a contest at Butlins. Okay, it was a knobbly knees contest but they’re a smart pair of patellas. Although you don’t get to view them often because she wears a polyester leisure suit most of the time.
Wilhelm wears suits made for him in Rome by Caraceni. He gets them there because that’s where Humphrey Bogart sometimes got his. Wilhelm probably saw Casablanca once too often and models himself on Rick. I had a suit once. Okay, the trousers didn’t match the jacket and it was really two halves of two suits but it was pretty sharp if you ignored one or two ketchup stains down the front.
That’s one thing Wilhelm’s suits never had. He probably hasn’t been in the same room as a bottle of ketchup for years. He only eats things with French names that look like abstract paintings on a plate. Like most drug dealers he started life grabbing a burger on a windy corner while palming off the odd Eight Ball; it didn’t take him long to realise that Swiss users had more money than those in Berlin and Brandenburg. He came to the border and widened his horizons and expanded his product range. He made money faster than the Royal Mint and the quality of his victuals rose accordingly. Rumour has it he has his own herd of Charolais in Burgundy and a château and vineyard to go with it. I was twenty before I realised meat came in an unminced form and wine didn’t necessarily have to taste like brass polish or come in boxes.
People complain that drug pushers like Wilhelm spread misery, which may be true, but I don’t buy his wares and have quite enough misery of my own. It’s getting harder and harder to watch Wilhelm flash by in his open-top dream car, with his unmatchable wife both looking like models of perfection on their way to fly off in their Lear jet to Mustique while I finger the coin in my pocket hoping it’s a euro and not just fifty cents. Virtue is its own reward so I guess I’m pretty rich but I bet Wilhelm looks at me and firmly believes that Lord Byron got it right.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 3
This is the age of oddities let loose. – Lord Byron
It seems that weird, eccentric, unwashed itinerants are particularly drawn to the border areas.
In old movies you sometimes see an Apache medicine man dancing around the corpses of a tribe massacred by the Seventh Cavalry. This bouncing traditional one-step is often accompanied by a rhythmic wailing. I’ve never been to the American plains but I’ve seen an identical performance here in front of the shopping centre. The dancer was no Indian brave in tasselled buckskin although his grubby jacket was leather as were his trousers and greasy shapeless cap. It must have been a regular performance; the Rottweiler lying beside the blanket and the bulging backpack barely flicked an eye in his master’s direction. The lean and hungry dog concentrated his wistful glances at passing toddlers which was disconcerting since he licked his chops at the same time and showed rows of glistening fangs.
The dancing, if the stomping circulation could be called dancing, was not for public consumption. I had believed otherwise because there was a brown cardboard mug sitting on the pavement in front of the gyrating dog-owner and I thought it was meant for the offerings of sympathetic passers-by. This was clearly not the case as a do-gooder tossed a twenty cent coin into the mug as they swept by and a column of coffee splashed upwards. Both the dog and man looked at the resulting puddle and the man gave a belated, “Oi,” at the retreating defiler of his refreshment.
A wide assortment of beggars do hope for the odd tossed contribution into their bowls, mugs, hats or instrument cases. I lived in Berlin shortly after the wall came down and there were dozens of wonderful former Soviet musicians busking in the U-bahn. Here the level of musical aptitude is more ex-kindergarten than ex-philharmonic. Not that there are many buskers. Most of the indigents are women colourlessly bundled like extras in a Mexican cowboy movie or as peasants from a Spanish civil war epic – metres of shapeless cloth: scarves, shawls, headdresses or ankle-length black skirts. These poor damsels at least look as if they need money which is more than can be said for the men who slouch on a precinct corner with a can of lager, a cigarette, and the obligatory mongrel, and hope for contributions to their off-licence, filter tip, and tin of Pedigree Chum funds.
There seems to be far fewer young females than young men. Maybe the qualifying conditions for the fairer sex are difficult to fulfil. From observation it seems that certain traits are vital for successful indigence; feminine allure is not one of them. You have heard the expression, ‘dragged through a hedge backwards’ concerning a rather wild hair arrangement but here this seems to be a literal description of the complete package. Add the facial ironware, piercings, colourful tattoos and Gothic application of eye made-up and you have a fair idea of the female denizens of our border street corners. I have seen primly-attired matrons cross over the road rather than pass within coin-tossing distance of these zombie film extras and their begging bowls.
Do not be fooled. In my limited experience these ‘ladies’ are by no means as ghastly as they look. I had a very pleasant conversation with one who sounded as if she had attended the Sorbonne or a Swiss finishing school by the scope of her knowledge and the cadences of her refined accent. She resembled the formerly mentioned Indian brave since she had a Mohican haircut but she was quite charming. I donated fifty cents towards her tonsorial and sartorial outgoings.
As with most western societies there is a lack of social funding here; more mentally-challenged folk are appearing on the streets. I have sat beside them on benches as they rip newspaper into squares before tucking them in a pocket and continuing with another sheet of Das Bild. (They might merely have read the paper – I’ve often felt the impulse). I’ve seen middle-aged men fill a carrier bag from a rubbish bin before hurrying on to the next one and emptying the bag again. I don’t know what to do to help them. I did try last week. I saw a long-haired girl in jeans and tee shirt. The jeans had rips, not only in the knees but in the thighs and rear. She was muttering to herself and walking round in tight circles occasionally waving her arms. I had to act when she headed towards the busy road still mumbling. I put out a saving arm. She pushed me away, flicked back her hair revealing her mobile phone earpiece, and jumped into her parked open-top Mercedes with the words, “Sorry, love, just been accosted by a tramp. This town is full of crazies.”