a Washington D.C. diary, of sorts

There is a man who walks very slowly down my street every morning. He never walks on the pavement, always the road, keeping close to the parked cars. I spotted him once downtown. He’s not hard to miss. Dressed completely in black, he has a large sports bag slung across his back and a scarf wrapped around his head.  He walks with a gait that suggests he is listening to a particularly mournful Billie Holiday song; perhaps he has earphones on under his scarf. He looks like a weary ninja.

Never on the pavement, always the road. I want to stop him and ask, why do you never walk on the pavement?

**

I generally try not to think too much about paths, and choices. I rarely look more than a few months ahead. I fall into jobs. Trip into relationships. Stumble over music and literature. I like to think this is because I am the right-handed child of left-handed parents; my sense of direction is so skewed that I am happy to let the waves of life push and pull me every which way until they dump me where they think best.

If I am to be honest, I’m a lazy toad who can’t be arsed to make decisions and would much rather someone else make them for me. Particularly because then I would have some other fuckwit to blame when things go wrong.

Interestingly, I suppose, this is not a true reflection of my behavior once I have started a job into which I have fallen. I am rather decisive then. I have had jobs where the decisions I made, had they been the wrong ones, could have resulted in major pointing-and-shouting fuck-ups for the entire world to see. But that’s work. This is life.

So. I continue to take small hops from pavement to road to pavement.

**

Moving to D.C. was a classic Hebe hop. Two years on, it has proved a pretty epic leap.

If the great Ed McBain were alive today, and so minded, he might describe D.C. thus: the city is a woman, envied for her beauty and her history, despised for her politics, smothered by the constant attention of opinion. In the game of ‘shag, marry, murder’, D.C. is the woman men want to sleep with solely for the satisfaction of bitching about it afterwards.

A few months after my arrival, standing smoking in the street, I thought ok city, here I am: do your worst. Moments later, as I bent down to put the cigarette out, I got whacked in the face by an angry, ranting homeless man wielding a piss-stained blanket.

**

My current job is not as stretching as my last. This enormous change in circumstance, with its sudden abundance of free time, was not unlike a baby discovering its feet for the first time: what the hell are these and what do I do with them? So I walk. And walk. And walk.

This city was built for walking. Tree-lined streets and wide boulevards lead to monuments and museums, galleries and gardens and parks, bars and restaurants and roof-top terraces, theatres and clubs. And stretching above, unmarked by skyscrapers, the vast, forever-blue sky.

My favourite walk, the one I insist all visitors take with me, is along Q Street from 14th all the way to Wisconsin Avenue, block after block of beautiful row houses, higgledy piggledy with turret windows and French slate and verdigris, all shades of pink and cream and brown and lemony-yellow. With the advent of spring, the tiny front yards are filled with pansies and hellebores and tulips, the pavements sticky with browning magnolia petals.

Of course it’s not all pretty. The city has its problems, as all major cities do. The homeless guy who loiters on the roundabout near my apartment, bawdily wishing me a good evening as he pees into a trash can (I am always amazed he can do this hands-free). The panhandlers, standing wearily with arms outstretched on the corners of cross streets, the invisible lines encircling them drawn by the passersby – we, me – who give them a wide berth.

The underfunded public transport system, the lack of decent housing in poorer neighbourhoods, the reliance on cheap, unhealthy fast food for want of fresh fruit and vegetables, the city’s constant struggle for power over its own budget, the disenfranchisement of the entire population and the battle for statehood … I could go on. You get the picture.

**

Where else but in this small city of 600,000 people, where inhabitants change from year to year as jobs reach the end of contracts, would I meet and become friends with people far removed from my usual group? In London, you have your friends. You don’t need any more. Here, you are open to widening the circle. “My blog,” I told a departing friend, “is called ‘New Friends, Better Friends’, not ‘New Friends … Oh Fuck Off Then’.”

I have even made friends through social media, something I would never have done back home. “Do not,” warned someone as I went to meet a couple I had chatted to on Twitter, “go back to their apartment. They might want a threesome.” My new friends were forever after known as The Thruple.

As for dating. Well. I live in a gaybourhood where the only single, heterosexual men in my age group are homeless. This is a young person’s city. A badly dressed young person’s city.  Take a walk downtown on a Saturday night if you fancy a little DIY retinal surgery.

**

Although no longer employed in the world of politics, regular readers of this blog (er, there’s an email sign-up button, yeah? USE IT) will be aware of my continuing fascination/borderline stalking of all things political.

Exchanging one capital city, with its petulant, shouty politics, for another with a political system more baffling than a denim two-piece and the kinds of personalities you might meet in a focus group on a Saturday night, has been revelation. Not perhaps on the scale of the Second Coming, fair enough, but there are parallels with the struggle between good and evil. Also, a necessary reminder that politics doesn’t have to always be serious. Because, Newt.

**

I love this city. It has helped me to understand that whether you walk on the pavement or on the road, the main thing is to keep going. There’s probably a bar somewhere at the end of the block.

run hebe run

Every Sunday morning, bright and early, I try to get out for a run. It is a great way to sweat out any residual alcohol, and also to gauge just how much fun took place in the neighbourhood the night before. Empty pizza boxes and champagne bottles? Lots of fun. Discarded hair weaves? Not so much.

I moan about running every now and again but really, I love it. I am a plodder, slow but steady. I love running in the summer when the heavens open and I turn my face up to catch the rain drops in my mouth, and I love running in the winter when my hands tingle in my gloves and my arse gets so cold it goes completely numb. I love watching the symmetry of my feet as I run. 

More than anything, I bloody love watching the Olympics. All that running and jumping, stretching and striving. I have followed the Olympics since 1980 when Lindsey McDonald, a member of the running club I belonged to as a youngster, competed in Moscow. I fantasised about following in her very fast footsteps and standing on the podium with my medal, the national anthem playing as the Union Jack fluttered above my head.

The truth is, I was a bit shit at sprinting, and long distance running bored me. But running continued to punctuate my life as the years went by.

Richmond, London. Spring, 2004.

The river path to Richmond is a favourite run of mine. Go very early in the morning and you will see swans elegantly breaching the mist that delicately clings to the water. It is like stepping into a Turner painting. One such morning I stopped to stretch, sat on a bench and burst into tears. It had been a shitter of a year. A man walked past, laughing, and said “Never mind, darling, it might never happen!” Instead of wailing “But it already has! And you can fuck off”, I whimpered pathetically and sobbed even more. Five minutes later, a bit bored and needing to blow my nose, I’d had enough of feeling sorry for myself. “Right”, I thought. “Fuck this. I’m going to take a year off and go to South America.” And so I did.

Manaus, Brazil. 6 July, 2005.

I was in a posh hotel, a treat after four days sailing down the Amazon from Iquitos, Peru. I was still swaying, in desperate need of a shower and food that didn’t involve river fish and beans. The boat had been very overcrowded, over 200 passengers in hammocks, with just two toilets (actually they were not that bad, I have seen worse on the motorways in France). I turned on the television and there was London, my London. Crowds had gathered in Trafalgar Square to hear if the city would be awarded the 2012 Olympic Games. When the news came, I jumped up and down, tears streaming down my cheeks. The following morning, I woke to the horror of the bombings, and I cried again.

Buenos Aries. October, 2005.

When walking around this beautiful city, it was not uncommon for the occasional jogger to skim my arse with his hand whilst whizzing past at speed. My response was generally a mixture of outrage and gratitude. I was also a little jealous; carrying running gear in my tiny rucksack was just not possible, and I missed it. I had to find other ways to keep fit, and so here are tips to keep in trim whilst doing absolutely no exercise on a journey around South America. You’re welcome.

* To maintain taut abdominal muscles, take a taxi from any major airport in Brazil. The speed of the cab and the reckless driving will ensure that all major stomach muscles will remain tight for the duration of the journey. This is also beneficial for wrist flexibility as you grip the seat in sheer terror. Neck muscles may also be exercised as you brace for impact when a horse bolts in front of the cab (Salvador only). Additional methods to aid neck flexibility include nodding furiously in agreement during a conversation with a shop assistant as you realise you have not got a clue what they are saying, and swivelling the head from side to side in a slightly maniacal manner as you try to cross a road without being killed.

* For calf muscles, a leisurely stroll around Ipanema in Rio will aid flexibility and ensure a finely turned ankle as you navigate an assault course of strategically placed dog shit. This also boosts overall coordination, as you simultaneously maintain a close watch on the men on the beach in their teeny-weenies.

* Upper arm muscles benefit enormously from any number of activities, from the regular frenzied assaults on small and crafty insects in hostel dormitories, to holding a heavy rucksack above your head whilst trying to secure it safely on top of a bus, to raising your hands repeatedly to cover your ears to prevent having to listen to Dire Straits in the hostel bar for the fifth time.

* Cardiovascular exercise is assured when staying in dodgy hostels. You will jump up and down and wave your arms briskly in an attempt to keep warm under a freezing cold shower. The muscles around the heart will be strengthened as you become more and more agitated because the hostel owner promised you a hot shower and you have not had one in three weeks.

* Long distance buses of an inferior quality are a perfect substitute for bottom-clenching exercises. You will move from cheek to cheek regularly to ensure your bottom stays awake during the journey even if the driver doesn’t.

* Keep your brain active with a range of mind-gym exercises, such as trying to remember which currency you should be using and what the exchange rate is when you cross the border at 3am; working out how much your laundry will come to if each pair of knickers costs 50 centavos and a shirt is 2 reais; and deciphering your hotel bill at the end of the week whilst trying to work out how you could possibly have been charged for using the shower cap.

* Facial muscles will have a full work-out as you grimace in pain following a particularly strenuous trek. Laughing uncontrollably at the 18-year-old girls from Luton wearing full make-up on the same trek will have similar benefits to aid facial flexibility.

Beijing. August, 2008.

Beijing, the final days of the 2008 Olympics. I had to rely on texts from home for news of GB medals, as the television channels in my hotel were broadcasting only the disciplines in which Chinese athletes featured. It was a huge thrill to be there. A tour of the Olympic village to see the facilities and meet the athletes made me yearn to be part of the Olympic gang. All the stories are true, apparently; the minute the Games end, it is a massive shagathon. (On an utterly unrelated note, the last time I visited Beijing I was presented with a dish of sea slug at an official banquet. It was black and spiky, with a rubbery texture. It looked like a massive dildo. I couldn’t decide whether to eat it or use it.)

London. September, 2008.

Having been rejected through the ballot five times, I was finally allocated a place to run the London Marathon. Then, unlike now, I worked very long hours, often seven days a week, and travelled regularly around the UK and overseas. On reflection, it was the best time to train for a marathon because I discovered that the following is true: if you want something done, give it to a busy person.

Over the following months, I found myself training in the most unlikely of places: the British Ambassador’s residence in Washington DC; a hotel gym in Santiago that was so hot I almost sweated out a kidney; Basra in Iraq, where I marvelled at the sheer stamina of men and women running in oppressive heat and dust; a hotel gym in Rome where I threw up after eating too much pasta; the ExCel centre in London the night before the 2009 G20 leaders meeting. I even managed a quick run round St James’s Park while the G20 leaders in Downing Street were on their first course, dashing back to work before desert was served.

London. April 26, 2009.

What a day. I ran the whole way with my sister-in-law. Every time she took a sweetie offered by spectators, I would shout “sweet jesus no, it’s rohypnol!” As we crossed the finishing line together, I finally – over twenty years later – got the medal I had dreamt of. It was one of the best days of my life.

Washington, DC. July 2012.

The London 2012 Olympics will be the best day in many people’s lives. It will be magnificent. Will you watch it too?

miami

As I raised the fork to my mouth, my eyes flickered, distracted by something to my right. The man sitting across from me in the cafe had finished his meal and was making odd hand movements in front of his face. I realised he was flossing his teeth. At the table. I stared, horrified, as he carefully inspected the used floss before slowly spiralling it onto a napkin in front of him.

It is rather tricky to yelp “What the fu …?” when your mouth is full of rice and beans, so I turned away to look out of the window. And my eyes melted.

A woman of indeterminate age, her bronzed face illuminated under a nest of hair the colour of ginger ale, was hobbling down the street wearing a jumpsuit that looked like it had been rolled in a wet Jackson Pollock painting. Tottering in gold sandals the height of a small mammal, the woman was clawing the arm of a fat, shirtless man beside her, using him as ballast to keep upright. In his free hand, the man carried a handbag. His expression was one of resigned misery. A young boy on a skateboard sped past them, the sudden rush of air knocking the woman off balance and into her companion. His expression did not change as he gently pushed her back.

Welcome to South Beach, Miami.

Arriving in Miami for a few days break from D.C. was like being punched in the face by a peacock, the dull and the bland replaced by the vivid and the raw. At the airport, elderly men with hair that odd, unnatural shade of dark copper watched as girls in arse-skimming shorts bent over to awkwardly retrieve their enormous bags. The chatter around me was in Spanish; someone mumbled a question and I automatically responded “¿Como, Señor?” A man, sitting to the side of the carousel, noisily directed his children to collect his bags then casually lifted a cheek and let rip, as if to seal the deal.

The beach is beautiful, clean and long and golden. There is something rather special about that first walk along the shore, flip-flops in your hand, warm water splashing up to your knees.

South Beach is all about seeing, and being seen. So I sat and watched. Curvy women, their sideboobs squelching out from narrow one-piece swimsuits, wore earrings as long as they were wide, great big gold things like pre-Columbian artifacts. Fat babies, their sausage-link legs bursting from tiny frilly swimsuits, ate sand and stared, mesmerised, at the water tickling their toes. A gaggle of young girls screeched like magpies as they ran to jump the waves at the water’s edge, leaving one of their party to keep guard over their mobile phones.

Young men swaggered across the sand in baggy paisley shorts and striped vests, silvery trails snaking up their muscles and through the tattoos, talking loudly as if their words were the velcro that would make the girls stick to them. An older, rather grubby man, his face glistening like sweating butter, crouched behind a windbreak, taking photos of a group of young girls sitting on towels. The girls noticed him and unfolded their bodies and stretched and posed and laughed.

Further up the beach, a life guard stood with arms outstretched between a couple as they traded insults. “You’re leaving me? You’re fucking leaving me NOW?” the girl screamed as she shook off the twitchy efforts of her friends to comfort her, instead throwing her flip-flops over the head of the life guard.

So much to see, so many little stories. As I made my way back to the hotel, I laughed out loud at the sheer joy of feeling the warm sand between my toes and the sun on my face. It doesn’t take much to make me happy.

My break in Miami passed far too quickly. I pretty much did what every other anti-social British person does on holiday: took walks along the beach, sat by the hotel pool, started on a pile of books and didn’t speak to anyone for four days. Oh, and flossed in private.

Bloody brilliant.

The Motorcycle Diaries, revisited

Day One. I had the raging shits and my face had broken out in an anxiety rash. Stuck to the loo and shedding skin like a snake, I began to fear that I would spend the rest of my life trapped there because I couldn’t remember the way back to the hostel. I was in a Spanish language school in Ecuador thinking I can’t do this, what am I doing here, which fuckwit told me this would be a good thing? Oh yes, that would be me.

That was seven years ago. I was in my thirties and had taken a year off work to travel solo around South America. I had woken that first morning in Quito feeling sick. I tried desperately to remember landmarks on my way to school so I wouldn’t get lost on the way back. The only thing I could recall was a shop with a ladder outside called ‘Shop of Ladders’ (it reminded me of a shop I once saw in Blackpool called ‘We Sell Fags’). Waiting for my name to be called, I watched the other new students, twenty-somethings, talking to each other, laughing, looking relaxed and happy. Cue massive panic attack.

I tempered my burning face with cold water and thought back to the evening spent with one of my dearest friends, Bobs, when we watched ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ and I fell in love with Gael García Bernal and decided at that moment that I would go to South America. Resolve stiffened, and walking like I’d secreted a small mammal up my arse and was desperately trying to keep it from scrambling out, I squidged out of the toilet and made my way to the classroom for my fluency test. The first challenge over, and I was placed in the ‘you know fuck all Spanish, do you actually understand English?’ class.

Two weeks on, and learning grammar had become less of a challenge than sharing classes with 22 year-old gappers. Asked the question in our conversation class “what do you hate?”, the youngsters answered passionately with things like “inequality” and “deforestation”. I said “cheese” and “dogs”.

My fellow students had never heard of The Thorn Birds (“Aren’t they that band out of Sweden?”) or Haircut 100. They showed off when asked to tell the class what they had done the previous evening, burbling on about full-moon parties and drinking games. I had to make having a few beers and doing my homework sound more thrilling than sleeping with Ryan Gosling. Even my teacher was younger than me but married with ten children, so I took comfort in the fact that my breasts were still defying gravity whilst hers were cleaning the floor.

It was refreshing to use the parts of my brain that I thought had atrophied long ago, and once I was over the initial shock of being a pupil again and not having to wear a uniform, it was fun. But I had to unlearn years of entrenched work practices. I had to write everything by hand and soon developed a severe case of wanker’s wrist. I had to ask permission to go to the toilet. I couldn’t send someone to get me a coffee, nor could I waste half an hour googling on the computer (there was no computer).

Tip for older travellers: don’t get anxious about end-of-week exams. There’s no point feeling humiliated because the man-child from Leeds gets more verb endings right than you; you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that when he dies, the only thing he’ll be able to leave his children is the debt from his enormous student loan, whereas you enjoyed the heady days of the government grant and pot noodles.

I might bore you with more tales from my South America trip later. But the reason for writing about my travels now is this: last week my dear friend Bobs called me as she arrived in Buenos Aires on a work trip. On the plane, a handsome man had sat next to her and they got chatting. It was Gael García Bernal. They talked about their children, politics, favourite books. And she told him about me, and how we had watched ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ together, and how afterwards I had carefully planned what became the most amazing year of my life.

And it all came rushing back.

he said, she said

Ugh, this train smells of piss!” whined the woman, struggling to get her case into the overhead bin. “Well, what did you expect?” her companion snapped at her. “It’s Amtrak, of course it smells of piss”.

He whipped off his sunglasses, the sudden movement nudging his flat cap slightly over one ear. Gripping the headrest of the seat in front of him, almost trepanning its unfortunate occupant with the side arm of his glasses, he thumped down in his seat with a heavy growling sigh, in case the rest of the passengers in the carriage hadn’t realised that he was there against his will and was in no way happy about travelling on a train, for fuck’s sake, with other people. The woman edged into her seat next to him, twisting round awkwardly to brush the seat theatrically with the side of her hand before gingerly allowing her bottom to descend, her face crumpled with disgust as if she were about to sit on a cushion made of damp testicles.

From my seat across the aisle, I leaned over towards the couple. “No, sorry, actually that’s me. I smell of piss. Not the train. Me. Yeah, sorry about that. Heavy night, what you gonna do?” Like a small child who has dropped the phone down the toilet on purpose, I pulled that OOPS, SORREE! face as they gaped at me, their faces like doughnuts as their mouths opened into giant O’s.

I’m joking, of course. I didn’t really say that. Instead, I shook my New York Times loudly and stared crossly at them, willing them to look at me so I could pierce their souls with my shame-inducing death-glare. But they were too busy muttering darkly to each other to notice anything outside their spiky little world.

I like travelling by train. I don’t like arsehole passengers who insist on bursting out of their arsehole closet to infect all those around them with their gushing spray of arseholery. And, by the way, the train did not smell of piss. Any lingering sour smell was emanating from the seats of Mr and Mrs Arsehole across the aisle.

I was returning to DC after visiting Harvard and New York during the long Presidents Day weekend, a federal holiday originally conceived to celebrate George Washington’s birthday but which over time has morphed into an occasion to honour the office of the Presidency itself.

Thus it seemed fitting to kick off the holiday weekend in the famous centre of learning whose alumni includes eight US Presidents. Harvard is located in the town of Cambridge (named in honour of that other famous university), a small country town not unlike many in England. You can’t fail to be impressed by the imposing Georgian academic buildings, the Charles River where rowers glide by the joggers on its banks, and Harvard Yard where you walk the paths knowing that the Widener Library’s fifty-seven miles of bookshelves stretch below your feet. Sitting in a shabby-chic cafe, surrounded by serious-looking students peering at their laptops, Portishead echoing languidly in the background, I felt the cleverness seep into me like milk through bread. But as we all know, fierce intellect does not often a stylish person make, and beards and blazers punctuated the stream of passers-by.

On to New York and yet more blazers, this time draped over turtleneck sweaters and complimented with scarves and satchels. I saw one man wearing a poncho, and not ironically. Unlike Mr and Mrs Arsehole on the train, I try to save my mocking disdain for a much smaller audience, preferably over lashings of alcohol. Which I did, quite a bit; New York has some fabulous restaurants and bars, hence my heightened-by-hangover irritation on the train back to DC.

Sometimes I think if you were to cut me down like a tree, you’d find the words ‘gotta mock” running through me. Luckily my friends are of a sweeter disposition. One friend in particular sees the best in everyone and dismisses the thought that anyone could be an innately miserable twat, just begging for mockery. I vividly recall trying to emulate her goodness a few years back when talking to a chap in a bar in Argentina as we watched a tango lesson:

Me: “So, are you travelling?”
Bloke: “Yes, for a year, but it’s my last night”.
Me: “Poor you! Travelling round the world?”
Bloke: “Yes”.
Me: “What has been your favourite bit?”
Bloke: “Drinking”.
Me: “Seriously?”
Bloke: “Yes. I don’t do questions like that”.
Me: “Ok”. (thinking, what a prick)

Later … trying harder …

Me: “The tango teacher looks a bit like the lead singer from Hot Chocolate”.
Prick: “I don’t do famous people”.

I gave up after that. As you’ve probably noticed.

And so, after my short sojourn up the coast, I returned to a calm, cosy DC. I always feel a sense of quiet relief when the train pulls into beautiful Union Station, and the view from the taxi window seems wider, lighter. DC’s construction rules stipulate that no building may be more than twenty feet taller than the street it faces, and so the sky opens up as you drive through the city, blowing away that hemmed-in feeling you get in Manhattan and, for a brief moment, all the mockery from my soul.

And, by the way, Amtrak rocks.