Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The road to Stalintown

When visiting Georgia my mum's advice was simple:

"Don't cause any trouble"

"But wait...What if I go to Gori, the town where Stalin was born and is still revered and worshipped like a God and somebody asks me my opinion about him?"

"Say Stalin? I've never heard of him. Say you don't know who he is."

"Then how would I explain why I ended up in this smallish out of the way town in Georgia?"

"Just say you are passing though. Say it is lovely place."


Joseph Stalin was born in Gori in the Russian Empire (now Georgia) in 1878. The present day town has a population of around 50,000 people and is somewhat of a shrine and memorial to the genocidal Soviet dictator. Stalin is of course Georgia's most famous son to everybody in the world apart from Manchester City supporters.

A marshrutka in action
Getting to Gori from Tbilisi was to prove something of a challenge. By far the most common way of getting around Georgia is in the hot and stuffy transit vans and people carriers that operate as shared taxis called marshrutkas (or marshitskas if you are in a bad mood). You see hundreds of these around Tbilisi, all heading off in various directions around the city. In theory they are all pretty organised, with numbers and routes, but to someone who can't speak Georgian or Russian it can be pretty difficult to work out and understand.

It seemed that the best way to get to Gori was to go to the metro station Didube on the edge of town. At Didube we were greeted with a giant, chaotic and sprawling market. Picking though the stalls we eventually found the place we needed, a giant patch of wasteground filled with hundreds of yellow and white transit vans. Speaking none of the local language, the only thing to do was to walk around repeatedly saying the name of the place. Of course it took about five seconds for us to be identified as clueless tourists. From then on we received all kinds of offers for guided tours, personal chauffeurs and so on - all for astronomical prices. Finally someone took pity on us and told us that to get to Gori we had to go to the other giant patch of wasteground filled with transit vans (of course!), so we followed him through the rubble and the chaotic market and quickly found someone making the journey. A small amount of Lari were exchanged and we sat in the people carrier waiting for it to fill up. Quickly it seemed we were ready to go.

When the driver got in the car he did something very unexpected. From his pocket he pulled out a huge butchers knife, showing it to his mate who was sitting in the passenger seat - they both laughed heartily. He then placed the knife in between the two front seats next to the handbrake, put the keys in the ignition and we were off. Nothing was mentioned about the huge knife for the rest of the journey but the glint from the afternoon sun on its considerable surface offered a constant reminder.

Note large knife and prayer beads
I was somewhat concerned but had done my research from several sources. Although Gori was invaded and taken over by Russia as recently as 2008 as part of a war between the two countries, I had read it was now completely safe and the only two remaining areas of dispute were Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the Russian border. Two places I definitely did not plan to go.

Instead of sweating the chance of being attacked by Russian bandits I should probably have been more concerned about dying in a car accident. The man behind the wheel with the big knife was an absolutely terrible driver, even by Georgian standards. I should probably list the rules of Georgian driving that I picked up while I was in the country.

1. Never ever indicate
2. The lanes drawn on the road are for guidance only
3. Traffic lights are a hindrance. Stop only when there is a significant number of people walking in front of you that you wouldn't be able to plough through them. Do this by slamming on your breaks at the last possible opportunity
4. While driving enjoy the stripey patterns drawn across the road. These have no significance apart from aesthetic design.
5. Shout a lot.
6. Wave arms manically
7. Use horn liberally

Stalin enjoys a casual moment
We were driving on a three lane highway. The scenery was lovely but I couldn't help but notice that the driver had chosen a path directly in the middle of the outside and the middle lanes. We were going pretty damn fast, the car shook and the prayer beads hanging from the rear view mirror clicked and clacked together. He was also having a very animated conversation on his mobile.

Even so there were still cars that wanted to overtake us. They did this by steaming down the small gap between us and the barrier in the outside lane with the horn blaring. Our driver was apoplectic at the cheek of people blaring their horn at him. Clearly he believed he was driving totally fine. My hands clenched holding on to the seat in front. Occasionally we 'changed lanes' by swerving violently. Every articulated lorry up ahead was a heart in the mouth moment.

It proved to be a long 50 minute journey but we arrived without serious incident. Disembarking from the vehicle we gave our thanks to the driver for not killing us and wished him a good afternoon.

And there it was in front of us in all its glory.... The Stalin Museum

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

There's a guy down the kebab shop swears he's Hitler (AKA Döner Darts Hitler incident)

There's a certain kind of a moustache which is a problem. You'd know it if you saw it. I'm talking about a shaved top lip on either side with a patch of quite thick hair beneath the nose remaining. Particularly if it's dark hair.

There can only be two acceptable moments when a man sports this moustache. Firstly when shaving, when you do all the other bits and you leave that bit there to see what it looks like. Importantly you must make sure everyone is out and NOT take a photo. Secondly, when going to a genocidal dictator fancy dress party and you haven't got the depth or volume of top lip facial hair to pull off 'The Stalin', nor the scraggly beard to go for 'The Genghis Khan'.

I was in the kebab shop this evening.

This is not unusual.

Tonight due to extreme hunger and a diverted train I was in a new establishment. The signs were mixed but taking the queue inside as a good omen, we dived in to shelter and hopefully to enjoy above average food (hey, I aim high).

At the front of the queue and just about to order was a man who had the aforementioned moustache style. Of probable Turkish descent, he wore a darts shirt, with darts jauntily sticking out his his top pocket. Balding a little, his hair was swept over in a severe side parting.

And then on his top lip, there it was.

The odd thing is that I don't recall ever seeing this facial hair before in my life. However this is the second time I've seen this in two weeks in Berlin.

It's difficult to know what to do in such circumstances. Being brought up in Birmingham I've come to learn that speculative opening conversational gambits in late night take away shops do not always have pleasant consequences, particularly if criticising the beliefs or appearance of the other party.

I pondered the consequences of leaning over and with a casual shrug and "entschuldigung" enquiring "Das ist ein Hitler Moustache, ja?" I also thought about taking a cameraphone photo, but then I remembered he was carrying darts in his pocket after all.

I didn't get chance to think about it too much, because soon Turkish Darts Hitler had ordered his food and was on his way. Perhaps that is the look he is going for in order to attract darts sponsorship? (after all there has already been a viking and a vampire). Maybe he likes the look and people are too polite to tell him. Maybe he is simply a Darts Nazi and that's all there is too it.

Whichever it was, I made a mental note to start dressing like Winston Churchill when I embark on my stint on the Berlin amateur darts circuit. I can sense a rivalry brewing already.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The inebriated Russian has landed

There he was in seat three. Bull necked, broad shouldered, shaven headed and clad in an expensive biker jacket. Several scars decorated his face and a glassy, lopsided but frankly quite threatening grin was spread across his face.

The empty glasses half filled with melting ice by his side and the fact that he was loudly singing songs in Russian were a sign. This man was drunk. Very drunk indeed.

It was after midnight. Approaching the money bubble in a turbo side event at EPT Prague. Surely the graveyard shift for any tournament director. The lady in charge on this particular evening struggled to contain the people on the rail who were of course also heavily drinking, shouting and frequently getting in the way. One man in a tracksuit even tried to break and balance tables and do her job for her.

Several drinks had already been spilled, glasses smashed and a weary waiter with a dustpan, brush and mop was on permanent standby.

The game was Texas Holdem with deuces wild. The same as regular Holdem except all twos either in your hand or on the board could be used as wild cards. In theory – five or even six of a kind could be made. And of course flushes, straights and full houses were far more easy to come by.

I'd never played this game before but after about 10 minutes I'd settled on the strategy of never playing a hand without a deuce in it unless on a bluff. Powerful traditional Holdem hands went down markedly in value and at one point in this tournament I even open folded pocket kings. Ridiculous of course under normal circumstances in any tournament other than the bubble of a satellite. Some people adapted quicker than others and some people engaged in quite deep strategy talk at the table which was surely a mistake.

Our Russian friend was getting into the spirit of the evening by singing bawdy songs in English and Russian and occasionally just swearing loudly at nobody in particular. He exuded no aggression, just a general air of Tourettish bonhomie, so generally he was tolerated by the dealers and the floor staff. He also insisting on calling me Donald and became the third person at the poker table within a few weeks to say I was a spitting image of a young Donald Sutherland. We shook hands several times to confirm our friendship. He bought me a drink.

Donald Sutherland (mixed game specialist)

Surprisingly he was playing well, very well indeed. In a short time at the table I'd seen him run a couple of quite skillful bluffs and make one excellent fold. His grasp of the wildcard aspect of the game seemed good and the fact that he was hammered and could barely string a sentence together made him tricky to read. In between hands he sometimes confusedly asked where we were or what tournament this was.

The problem came when we were down to 18 players and the tournament director asked us to move to the other side of the room to and have a redraw to play the final two tables. The Russian player faced some issues including stacking his chips, understanding where to go and walking in a straight line. We made it just about, but it was a struggle. I learned that making a drunk Russian bear of a man move from his seat when he didn't want to was a tricky process. I also intervened to stop him putting his tournament chips in his pocket on several occasions for fear he would be disqualified.

At around 3:30am I was knocked out just short of the final table when my ten-two was unable to beat the ace-two of my opponent. I managed to quickly sort out my winnings and was chatting to a couple of people I knew in the corridor when I heard the shout of “DONALD”. I turned to see the Russian guy running out of the toilet towards me and then attempting to rugby tackle me to the floor. Luckily I was able to largely avoid the impact, although he did succeed in grabbing me in the testicles, much to his amusement.

“Are you still in the tournament?” I asked him. He looked unsure, “I don't know. Am I?” he replied. I told him he better get back and check because he would be blinded out of the game.“You're right Donald” he exclaimed, before bounding off to the tournament room.

The following day I got up early on a lack of sleep to play the next side event at 12 noon. There he was at the venue, bright as a button, more coherent today and with no trace of a hangover. He had a vague idea who I was and had little memory of the final table the night before. All I know is that he outlasted me and therefore won more money than me. I asked him how he was able to be still playing today after a night of heavy drinking. The answer was simple. A shrug of the shoulders and an concise explanation.

“I am Russian. It is easy.”