Thursday 23 August 2012

Italian job

Nicolae bears an uncanny resemblance to Maria Luciano the actor who starred in many of Sergio Leone’s Italian Westerns back in the Sixties. Nicolae wears bespoke clothes that don’t need conspicuous labels. He still has a habit of holding his cigarette at waist level between two fingers with his thumb sticking out; it adds to the air of rueful disdain he now wears – along with his expensive clothes. 

I first met him two years ago at his mother’s funeral. The only son, he promised to take on the family’s lucrative real estate and printing businesses and keep them going despite having zero experience. He was twenty-two.   
I introduce Nicolae to Dimitris’ souvlaki then we head off to listen to Daniel playing the piano at the Art Bistro. I ask Nicolae what how it’s going, running his family business. He puts his car keys on the table and tells me he drives the most expensive car in Kronstadt. Sounds like you’re doing well then, I say. Nicolae lights another cigarette. He tells me how every woman he meets is only interested in being seen at his side in his Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG and walking down Republicii arm in arm; and how every guy he meets either wants to buy him out, cut him in on an exclusive land deal or needs to borrow money. I can’t imagine everyone’s like that, I say. Yes they are, he says, when you’re rich.

I point to the bar and tell him about the mysterious painting that turned up recently.      

Footnote: meeting Nicolae again inspires me to make the influence of Spaghetti Westerns more explicit in Zen Ambulance, including the showdown with Cherokee and the Truths waiting at the station for the train to come in. 

Monday 13 August 2012


Sitting outside the Mythos we watch this young guy and his wife turn up. The guy is tall, well-built and has a somewhat intense air. Although smartly turned out he is not festooned in designer labels. Like a rocket, Dimitris is out of his seat and talking them through the menu. They thank him then wander off towards Republicii to check out the other cafes and restaurants.      
Fifteen minutes later they’re back and tucking into souvlaki. The guy is called Bob and tells us this is the best Greek food he’s ever had. I mean it, he says speaking in an accent I can’t quite place. American...?  No, Bob explains he’s Romanian but after the collapse of communism trekked two hundred and fifty kilometres to Italy, spent three years working there before heading to LA. Now he’s managing a successful construction company – cards are exchanged – and has come back to visit his country of origin. Although modest Bob is very proud of where he lives in LA: its ethic of hard work, reward and opportunity; the fact just about every kind of food from around the world is only a few minute's walk away.

Bob knew a ninety-seven year old Englishman out in LA (did some work on his house). He will never forget the Englishman’s unfailing kindness, politeness and fairness and, as a result, is particularly keen on talking to me. I admire what Bob has achieved and tell him so. Bob, Dimitris and I cut the breeze. Bob gives us a small bottle of palinka, a sort of clear brandy made from fruit. Dimitris and I quickly down it. Very nice. Salud! Dimitris reciprocates by getting out his trusty bottle of ouzo – the one with the classical Greek goddess, wearing a miniskirt, on the label. I reciprocate by buying a round of Silva.

When it is time for Bob to leave we shake hands. He has a firm handshake, the kind of handshake that you would seal a deal on; that makes a signed contract seem very much a formality.      

Tomorrow Bob and his wife are going to Konstanza on the train.  

Friday 10 August 2012

Everyone goes to Rick’s

There is the ubiquitous Irish pub in Kronstadt. “...serving porter since 1910”. Yeah, right. It is not only culturally, socially and existentially intrusive but every day they set up an enormous flat-screen TV and blast out pop music, polluting every cafe within range (including the one I like to sit in). Why on earth drink Guinness when Ursus and Silva brew excellent local dark beers?  Why eat Shepherd's Pie when you can eat Goulash? Perhaps the pub is somehow locally aspirational like the shoe shop, a place to conspicuously spend wedge?

Or maybe it’s just me.

Later that afternoon, Ian, a guy from Derry who has divided his time between Kronstadt and the Dominican Republic for the last four years, turns up at Dimitiris’ place. Three cloudy glasses of ouzo are brought out. Thank you, Dimitris. I hand a glass over to Ian. Thanks, Jack. Then I ask him if he’s ever been to the Irish pub. He looks at me over the top of his sunglasses and says, What do you think?       


On Republicii is an upmarket shoe shop called Il Passo: all white, minimalist and happening now. Sitting on the step next to it is an elderly lady wearing a headscarf. Far from being minimalist, she is wearing a multi-layered dress and a headscarf, which have seen better days. Her face is heavily lined. She’s been working Republicii in the afternoon sun, selling small bunches of, I think, violets. She looks knackered. I put down my Americano, leave the cafe and walk over. Kneeling down, I ask her for a bunch of her flowers. She hands one over and I give her twenty lei.

That’s too much, she says.
But they’re so beautiful, I reply.         

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Souvlaki Sundown

Last month I read Alan Furst’s immensely enjoyable Spies of the Balkans set in 1940s Salonika. By an incredible quirk of fate, Dimitris comes from Salonika although he’s not a spy.   

Dimitris has escaped Greece’s economic meltdown; his previous business went from a multi-million turnover to three cents an hour. So he’s turned his passion for good into Mythos: a fast-food cafe off the main square, just up from Kowlun Pizza. Gyros and Souvlaki. The natural-wood furnishings are imported and he gets his supplies from a Greek wholesaler in Bucharest. Getting the quality of fresh meat he demands, however, involves a constant battle with local suppliers. But he will not compromise. Every morning is an early start.

Dimitri is unfailingly energetic, polite, courteous and an endless source of jokes (my favourite being the one about the motorbike and the Vaseline). Like me he is a tireless observer. Most nights or afternoons I turn up at the Mythos and sit at the little tables out front. We discuss everything from Sparta, beautiful Brasov women versus guys who like extras in Hostel, heads in jails, the joys and challenges of being an entrepreneur, swimming, travels in South America and the dangers of leaving one’s mobile on.

A guy saunters past with a severe haircut and denim shorts. Dimitris explains he is the local decorator who spends all his money on the slot machines as soon as he gets paid. Later, a really tall swarthy guy comes over and helps himself to one of Dimitris’ cigarettes. A smile, a wave of the hand. One of the local gypsies, he explains, who charges for making sure the tables and chairs of the cafes and restaurants don’t get mysteriously damaged in the early hours. Everyone pays.

I watch Dimitris in action in the Mythos. He never stops welcoming his customers, shaking hands and taking care of them. Did you enjoy the meal? Something else? Yes, we only use Greek extra virgin oil for the pitta. The best you’ve ever had? Thank you. Please, come again!

His staff include Argentin who worked in the UK and has a Save the Children ID card. There’s the Greek chef who has lived in Kronstadt for two years is getting married this Saturday (he’s only taking a few days off work so no honeymoon). He’s getting married at the church where I saw the baptism. Yes, it’s beautiful there. Alex is a student and works part-time. She wants to design motorbikes when she graduates, and draws pictures of skulls in her free time. She says to me she’s never met a writer before. I say, Neither have I.   

Sometimes, sitting there drinking with Dimitris at sundown, I’m mistaken for his Greek business partner. I don’t mind at all.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Mysterious painting

A painting has turned up at the Art Bistro. It appeared as if by magic last night above the bar. No one knows how it got there. In the painting is a little girl in a black cowl sitting on the back of a two-headed red dragon. The dragon has opened one eye and looking straight at me. The girl’s eyes are cast down at the dragon. They appear to be in a cave but, on closer inspection, it is the silhouette of Kronstadt forming a circle around them. Maybe the mouth of a cave, maybe not. Is the dragon guarding the girl? The girl is the mistress of the dragon? Guarding the city? Not a single person in the Art Bistro knows what the painting signifies but everyone likes it.   

There is something archetypal about the painting. At first the tones and style of the painting remind me of the work of Hieronymus Bosch: the dragon could come from the Garden of Earthly Delights. But then I’m not so sure. It’s too gentle, connecting. Then I look at the girl again. Now I get it: the creatures and people in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.  Western and Eastern archetypal connections.

The next day I return to the Art Bistro but the painting has gone.

Footnote: Shadows and Pagodas is full of medieval and Buddhist symbolism e.g. the dead pelican with the perfectly formed apples, the three temples with their steep causeways going up to heaven and, of course, there’s Peter’s very own mysterious painting.

Sunday 5 August 2012

17th light

I'm sat upstairs in Colette's writing the shoot-out between Cherokee and Milo. The walls are exposed brick and white plaster. Bare floorboards. A seventeenth-century building with small square windows like a monk's cell. Sparse furnishings. With the particular kind of light you get in here, I'm reminded of that Vermeer painting. You know, the one with the serving girl at the window with the water pitcher. 

Its like I'm in that painting.     

Fruitcake piano blues

Daniel is passionate about his art. I once saw him get the waitress in the Art Bistro to tell a table of noisy customers to quieten down while he was playing. They do as they're told.

Daniel has given up a lucrative career at a German bank and an intense relationship with a girlfriend who has since given up poetry – she won a number of national competitions – in order to study law. I listen to Daniel as he patiently explains the creative differences between classical and jazz pianists; the challenge of trying to be improvisational when classically trained. About an extraordinary Hungarian jazz pianist called George on the cruise ship they worked together. Carried all his sheets in his pocket (everything else improvised). We draw parallels between writing and playing the piano.

Amongst many other things, we discuss smoking, the disintegration of personal interaction skills due to social media (he with his Galaxy, me with my Fujitsu Lifebook), bringing up children to be creative, teaching, Japanese tourists who text but don’t talk, the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Thai temples and getting a shave on the Burmese border. Interestingly, we discover we both use the same popcorn guy at the top of Republicii.      

When Daniel talks about something he is particularly passionate about he looks over the rim of his glasses at you, leaning slightly forward.       

A large bright red cocktail arrives and is placed in front of Daniel. It has a frosted rim and the stem is decorated with a polka dot ribbon offset by a mint leaf made of plastic. This is soon followed by an enormous round plate upon which is mounted a ball of wonderfully textured ice-cream, in turn mounted on a thick slab of fruit cake flanked by segments of alternately coloured grapefruit. Daniel explains the Art Bistro provides these things in addition to a decent wage – and the bartender likes to try his new cocktail recipes on him. Later on, when we are propping up the bar, I buy Daniel a Cuba Libre. 

It seems we both enjoy a drink, or two.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Anime-tiger girls 2

I’m sitting outside the Cafecera on Republicii having my late morning Americano. A bunch of guys – massive, built like replicant robots – park up at the far end. They are eating garish green ice-creams, which they’ve bought from somewhere else. They aren’t buying anything here.  

The waitress comes striding out of the Cafecera like a Nakajima Type 4 surface to surface missile. WHOOSH! She is incredibly tall with a feline face, olive skin, long black hair in a ponytail and eyeliner. Skinny jeans, trainers. She carries herself like a gymnast. Another anime-tiger girl.

A terrific argument ensues. This is my territory. So buy something or leave. The replicant threatens to hit Tiger Girl but she isn't backing down. She shouts at him, standing her ground. Go, girl. It is the replicant and his friends who eventually walk away. They take their atomic coloured ice-creams with them.  

Half an hour after they've left, Tiger Girl is still striding around outide the cafe, angrily talking to herself and furiously wiping down the tables. Sometimes she stops and stares down Republicii as if daring the replicant to come back for another fight.

Go, Tiger Girl.

Sponsored inspiration

I’m struggling with the penultimate chapter in Zen Ambulance when Cherokee and Mohawk go through Benny’s stolen packing cases full of weapons. I want something dramatic, completely OTT like Tarantino. Heavy cal machine-gun? No, no, too predictable. Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher? No, they’ve already chosen one of those. I spend a good twenty minutes in Colette’s trying to figure out what the other weapon is. It’s got to feel right, you know. But it’s not happening. I can’t pluck that right weapon out of my torpid imagination. Damn it.

I leave Bistro Colette and head back to Republicii (pronounced “-chee” by the way). I park myself in the cafe near my apartment. I order an ice-cold, dark beer to settle my jangled nerves.

A couple walk past. They’re lanky and kitted out in red t-shirts that say Feel the Beat! They both wear dazzling white baseball caps, shorts, knee-length socks and trainers. As they walk past, heading towards the Bank of Transilvania, I notice the girl is carrying a small silver cylinder with a coca-cola logo on her back; there’s a tube and nozzle hooked up to it.

I push my beer to one side and dig my laptop back out.

Got it.     

Anime-tiger girls 1

I’m sitting on a bench waiting for the Bank of Transilvania to open. I notice a waitress leave the Cafe Dodo – slots, darts, pool and flipper – carrying a tray of coffees to the punters in Republicii. I watch her intently as she goes back and forth. She has olive skin, long black hair in a ponytail. Her face is feline, like an anime-tiger girl. She wears bright red tights that accentuate muscular but not excessive calf muscles. In fact, a gymnast about to walk onto the mat to do her routine. She is purposeful with her head held high, back straight and feet pointing slightly outwards.

She is a waitress. 

Thursday 2 August 2012

Wash machine boogie

This is ridiculous. My second day in Brasov and I’m up to my neck in dirty water.  The washing machine in Sex Shop has broken down again and Monika has me asked to fix it. Why me? Isn’t there anyone else in Romania she can ask, for goodness sake? Somebody tell her: I’ve won the Wooden Spoon for Least Practical Male on the Planet for the last ten years.

Inevitably, I end up breaking the connecting pipe thing or whatever it is and there is an enormous puddle heading down the steps towards the strap-ons.

There’s only one way to deal with this. I get Monika to use her Samsung Galaxy and call Diogenes in Pest. As usual, he’s taking an extended lunch and available to take calls. Eventually – when the waves of uncharitable laughter have subsided on the other end – the wretched dwarf tells me how to fix it. With a great deal of effort I get the pipe back on. Bloody thing. God, I need to chill.

Ten minutes later I’m in a nearby side street where there is a creperie that sells Ursus Brun (dark beer for bears). I sit down. Relax. Then I notice an old dear wearing a loose fitting t-shirt and, apparently, no bra. She has Edna Popup breats.  She comes over to me and starts gesticulating wildly. I look around. Yes, it is definitely me she wants. Money? Signed photograph? What then? I don’t understand, dear. Oh, excellent. She’s locked herself out of her apartment and wants me to fix the ruddy door.

I try and hide behind my beer.

Romanian deflation

Mrs P is going to clean my apartment. Monika is doing the translating. But instead of agreeing the cleaning schedule and wedge we are talking about Mrs P’s late father who died in the war fighting the fascist Arrow Cross. Monika’s English isn’t too good either and it becomes rather hard work. There was a head? No, bread – in the tree where your father hid? Ah, I see. 

Suddenly a gust of wind hits the alley and the cream-painted front door of Sex Shop opens out to reveal a hole-in-the-wall place. Monika and Mrs P have their back to me so can’t see what I can: that hanging from the inside of the door is an inflatable doll. Only it is deflated. Result: the doll looks a sort of Belsen concentration camp prostitute – horribly emaciated, wrinkled dull flesh with scraggy pubes and yard-dog breasts, accentuated by outrageously rouged nipples. The doll’s mouth is, I think, designed to form an “O” but because all the air has gone out of her she has developed a warped, wry smile.

I christen her Edna Popup.       

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Republic 13

Brasov’s famous baroque thoroughfare is called Republic Street and packed with mostly high-end boutiques, cafes, creperies and banks. Little alleyways lead off to trendy underground bars. It is a place to be seen not only for the genuinely well-off but also the vast majority of locals who aren’t well-off but want to look like they are.

I’m actually staying in an apartment in Republic. But it is not high-end nor, indeed, in any sense aspirational. It is down a very narrow alley fronted by a big red sign saying Sex Shop in yellow letters. You go through the iron gate, down the alley, past the brown wheelie bins, Eli’s tattooing and piercing parlour, the little currency exchange booth, past Sex Shop and then you get to my apartment, which is right next door. At the far end of the alley live an elderly couple, the Popsecus. Mister P suffers from excessive wind (I’ll find this out later – the walls around here are paper-thin).

Monika manages Sex Shop. She is tall, pale with a mass of carrot-coloured hair and wears jeans that have leopard skin trim around the pockets.  She has heard me struggling to open the door of my apartment (it has one of those stupid double-lock mechanisms). She has ventured out. The first thing she says to me is: Do you fix the washing machines...?