Harold Bishop has a posse

The Rae St Institute > Blog archive > Why reasoning with a snoring Albanian is pointless

The following is a revision of something I was planning to finish and post before I left San Francisco but I didn't get around to it; instead it ended up being a horrid mess by the time I left the hostel for the railway station on tuesday morning, with no time or energy remaining to fix it. So instead I'm revising it now. I'm in Chicago, and have much to report as regards classy train stories and strange and wonderful encounters involving chess and red wine. But it's all messy notes at the moment and will have to be passed through my editor for correction be slightly cleaned up so it doesn't sound completely drunk and deranged.
Well, I made it. After a headlong bolt to catch my connection to Sydney, throwing a half-full coffee into a bin as I passed then seeing it explode dramatically as it hit the side, I got on, fumbled my way into my seat, and was off and rolling. The plane didn't explode, I wasn't drugged and carved up for sale as spare parts, and I even got to sit next to somebody interesting.

There's a strange machinistic air about the process of international travel; people silently waiting in long queues, being looked over, processed, stamped, and allowed to proceed.. A weird combination of ennui and excitement, and some weird questions:

.. or were you involved in the Nazi administration of Germany, 1933-1945?

[X] Yes [ ] No

Speaking of Germans, Germans provided the only real issue with the long haul flight (which is something I've never done before).. the time is about 9 hours into the flight, 5am San Francisco time, when after struggling for what seemed like a week I was finally at the point where sleep was imminent (as was basically everyone else in the plane); without warning two elderly inconsiderate freaks sitting directly behind decide to have a loud conversation in Deutsch about one of the inflight movies. I was ropable, and ready to start destroying furniture, incurring the wrath of Air Marshals etc, but I turned around and bit the pillow instead of screaming abuse.

try 9 hours of this... then a gruff
German conversation behind you
when you're nearly asleep

Fortunately somebody else bit their head off for me, so the episode ended with silence from the germans, and without me making a fool of myself either. But what unmitigated arrogance! THIS ISNT FUCKING POLAND!* YOU AREN'T RUNNING THIS SHOW!

(* note to any German customs officials reading this; that statement is intended purely as irony and no implication that all German citizens over the age of 55 are Nazis# is intended. Please, when the time comes in a few weeks, let me in to your fine country, which is not at all bent on World Domination.)

# the age it cuts in at is in fact 63

The woman sitting next to me had been invited over to the US by people she's involved in an online debating group with for an 'intervention' by conservatives hoping to change her solidly bolshy politics (but I doubt she'll let them..) - her ex-husband is a Vietnam vet, and she was the first person with war stories I encountered on the trip, but an Australian at that.. it seems almost EVERYONE over here knows someone who's either in Iraq or has been there.

But after the long and weird ordeal that was being strapped into a tiny chair for fourteen hours, I walked off the plane, got fingerprinted, photographed, and eyed suspiciously by assorted officials, then let loose in a foreign country. My first taste of paper money in a long time, and I was off on my vague self-made directions to the Hostel.

First impressions of anything are really important. So for my first contact with a country to be what it was left a weird and ominous feeling about what the following three weeks here were going to be. The airport was what all airports are; big, bland, loud, and loaded with people trying to get money off you. Catching the BART into the city was straightforward (WHY THE FUCK DON'T WE HAVE AN AIRPORT TRAIN IN MELBOURNE YOU FOOLS?), but then it started to get sketchy. About halfway in, I saw my first crackhead. An 18-ish girl stumbled onto the train all viscera and confusion; searing twisted eyes glaring out from a sunken, drained face. But that was nothing. You see, the Hostel I was heading for was in the Tenderloin, or 'TL' according to a cabbie. I walked out of the BART station straight into an area whose primary industries appear to be Crack Smoking and Crack Dealing, followed closely by Prostitution and Begging.

Right out the front of the hostel...
WELCOME TO AMERICA! Here's a crackhead. And another one! And someone sleeping in a doorway. And a crazy woman crouched down in deep conversation with a paper bag! PLEASE MIND YOUR STEP AND DO NOT HELP THE LOCALS, WE'RE CLEARLY NOT INTERESTED IN DOING SO OURSELVES. AND YES, SCUMBAGS DO LOOK THE SAME EVERYWHERE.

But there were good things about staying in a dodgy area, too. There were the occasional bits of interesting street art, and it gives you a jolt and shocks you into noticing the contrast.. The visibility of poverty is crazy. The extremes of it; beggars and Humvees, crack dealers, gun dealers, flower shops, pawn shops, swanky hotels, "loans" stores, and laundromats. Only two or so blocks from the hostel up Hyde Street was Russian Hill, a swanky area somewhat reminiscent of Toorak, except higher density. Expensive looking restaurants and expensive looking people driving expensive looking cars out of expensive looking apartment buildings. Of all things,


Not so swanky.

Borderline dodgy.
I spotted the Laundromats - partly because I needed to find one that wasn't full of people who let off a thick cocktail of paranoia-inducing pheromones, but partly also because they progressed in dodginess in parallel and just as rapidly as the neighbourhoods, block by block. In the space of three blocks, Hyde St turns from Toorak, 2006, into Richmond, 1978. Derelict buildings, weekly-rent hotels, homeless people, and blatant drug dealing. The contrast both between blocks and even in a single place, is alarming. But thinking about it laterally, I'm perhaps noticing this so much because the place is unfamiliar. There are certainly dodgy areas in Melbourne (Smith St Safeway, anyone?) but at the same time the problem in San Francisco seems to be EVERYWHERE.

But nevertheless, the country seems to be putting on its weirdest behaviour for me. In the first 36 or so hours I was in this mad country I:
  • Saw someone get hit by a car
  • Saw maybe seven or eight drug deals
  • Caught out bar staff trying to rip me off to the tune of $10
  • Got totally lost in an industrial area in Oakland when someone gave me bad directions to the wrong Amtrak station
  • Saw a morbidly obese man fall over and break his leg
  • Met a text book California cabbie (he's written two screenplays and is trying to get them off the ground: 'Mohammed: The prophet of Terror', and 'The confessions of Mary Magdalene')
  • Had maybe fifteen locals say "Sahrry, whuh?" in response to simple things like "I'd like a taxi to the Emeryville Amtrak station please" or "No cheese thanks". No wonder they dubbed Mad Max.
The bar staff incident occurred during an episode that I'm not entirely proud of, but could perhaps be expected of me, where on the first night I was in the country I went on a bar crawl with complete strangers and ended up with erm, a somewhat hazy memory after a certain cutoff point. To top it all off, my wallet went missing and was returned to me with money and all cards intact. What's wrong with you people? You're supposed to actually STEAL MONEY, not hand it back in to the hostel whose address is on a bit of paper inside.. If it's any consolation, though, the girl running the bar crawl destroyed herself and went home hours before I, the three or so locals we recruited, and some loud nutter from the Isle of Wight, were even thinking about it. A bartender tried to do the old Revolver trick.. I must have looked a bit hammered, or he's heard the accent, and given me change of a $10 out of a $20. Now $10 isn't loads, but I'll be buggered if I'm going to provide 'tips' beyond my control. I spotted the gap straight away and started waving the change he had given me, and staring at him. He then made a point of ignoring me, and serving other people, or 'doing things' like cleaning the taps mindlessly, etc. Now this would have been a confusing and otherwise innocent moment, if the other bartender, who hadn't spoken to me at all, hadn't seen the anger in my face and said "$10 isn't that much to get worked up about", pulled a tenner out of the till and handed it to me.

Now hang on a minute.

To be a good liar you have to have a good memory. You also have to have a good strategic mind, which this guy clearly didn't. I would have believed that it was an honest mistake, until the other bartender magically knew that I'd been shortchanged, and by how much. A certain Revolting joint in Melbourne has (or at least used to, I haven't been there for ages and hope to never go again) a trick where if you look drunk and you pay with a $50, you'll get change of a $20. Apparently this particular bar in SF has a similar policy.


At this point it's where it starts to get hazy; I recruited those on the crawl who were willing to leave, and we went off in search of a bar I'd been given directions to that we never actually found, but instead fell into some weird place where people were smoking (which is actually illegal in bars in California). From there, the episode gets rather turgid and confusing, so I'll leave it for some other time.

End result was I came to in unfamiliar environs at 9am, and reassembled myself, going into a panic about the missing wallet, but it soon turned up at the desk in the Hostel. Jet lag then decided to wreak its terrible vengeance on me, and the remainder of the day was spent in bed, not even hungover so much as just unconscious. Result being I had to extend my stay in SF, and eliminate my Mystery Stop plans for the train trip to Chicago, but that ended up not really being an issue anyway..

There's something unsettling
about being in a place where
rain water works up its own
lather, and clearly etches
deep burn marks into fairly
new concrete...
I should have suspected the sanity of northern Europeans the inhabitants of the Hostel when before the bar crawl a gruff Swedish woman in the lobby yelled "Shut Up!" at the crowd about to leave.. we weren't even very loud, she just decided that whatever silence she needed was more important than twelve people having a conversation. Hilarious.

The other people in my dorm were an issue I didn't have to confront until my second night (seeing as I didn't actually sleep there on the first night), but the situation was cartoonish, to say the least.. there was:
  1. The Swiss Serial Killer
    (I have no idea what this guy's name actually is, but it's one of the only two words I've ever heard him utter, the other being "Switzerland"). This guy sleeps most of the time; he's in bed before 9pm, and always gets up long after I'm up and about and on the other side of the city. He doesn't really speak at all; the extent of his expression is a blank stare and SSSH barked loudly at ANY noise after 10pm. I also just left him in the room about 5 minutes ago, growling in his sleep, thrashing and convulsing. He leaves the bathroom light on and door slightly open presumably because he can't sleep without it.
  2. The Snoring Albanian
    (I think he was actually Turkish, but it doesn't really matter. Albanian sounds weirder anyway.) This guy's snoring isn't actually that bad, but his myriad of weird habits make him still somewhat unsettling. Boiling tea using a clearly home-made heating element plugged straight into the wall. Never getting around to realising that the toilets here have a Flush function. EVER..
  3. The Teenage Aryan
    (let's call him Klaus). This guy had SOMETHING, I can't work out what the fuck it was - it sounded like it might have been a drink bottle - which would let out periodic odd noises like rubber against rubber. Even after me finally snapping, sitting straight up in bed and (loudly and gruffly) whispering "WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT!? JESUS GOD! COULD YOU TRY TO SHUT UP?", the noise continued (after a 10 minute pause).. Klaus was a friendly enough guy, but didn't seem to realise that whatever in the hell was making that noise was also making some people very angry, and incurring the wrath of a Swiss mass murderer is not something recommended by most Lonely Planet books. He also attempted calmly asking The Snoring Albanian to be quiet, clearly demonstrating a failure to comprehend the concept of sleep (PERHAPS HE IS SOME KIND OF ROBOT/GENETICALLY ENGINEERED UBERMENSCH AND DOES NOT SLEEP)
So picture your humble narrator trying to fight off jetlag, unable to sleep easily already, with a constant jungle-like cacophony



[then Klaus chimes in]


It was enough to make anyone totally batshit insane, and I spent as little time in the room as possible, in the interests of not being up on murder charges on my first week in the country. I also decided that it was called for to drop a stupid amount of imaginary credit card funds money on getting a sleeping compartment on the train to Chicago, being that I felt a distinct need to retreat to my 'cave' etc (ALSO -> BANG DRUMS, MAYBE KILL A DEER OR BUFFALO), and I had no idea what to expect of train passengers.

A genuine San Fran tunnel ride.
Part of a history tour I did
on the Sunday (we got rained out)

On my last, unexpected extra day in town, San Francisco decided to put on her best weather; a beautiful sunny day, after three days of constant rain (including being rained out on an otherwise great history-tour-by-bike on Sunday).. an early morning on a rented bike, out through Golden Gate Park, and a retinue of robot photos,

Japanese Tea Garden.
then on to the bridge, through swanky waterfront communities and gridded cheap housing. Standing at Fort Point trying to get some photos of the bridge, a guy walked up to me and asked in a broad Australian accent if I'd like my photo taken;

MAIN SPAN of the Golden Gate
I asked him if he'd like one taken of him and his girlfriend. A guy from St Kilda, travelling San Fran on a rented bike, taking photos of a toy monkey. His Irish girlfriend thought this was all very funny/lame and refused to believe that it wasn't an Australian thing to go around taking photos of small ephemera objects. We rode across the bridge together WHICH WAS VERY DISAPPOINTING BECAUSE WHEN YOU ACTUALLY GET THERE IT'S ONLY FIFTEEN FEET LONG AND MADE OUT OF PLYWOOD. I DEMAND A REFUND, AND/OR A NEW BRIDGE.

The rest of the day was spent doing the tourist thing, until the point, somewhere after lunch, that I realised in a reversion to old bad habits, I'd forgotten sunscreen, and was doomed to spend the next several days looking like some kind of strange lobster creature. Wandering around San Fran in the evening gloom, I for some reason caught the BART out to the middle of suburbia, and ended up getting yelled at by someone in full dress uniform because I was trying to sneak a photo of an Army/Marines recruiting shop in a shopping centre, still trying to drag people in off the street at 8pm. But that's another tale. Right now I have to go off exploring Chicago, and do my first international CM...

1 Comment - [post a comment]

Alison, Monday, May 29, 2006, 10:21 PM
Hello sailor..

look after yourself, don't go too crazy (ok, scratch that, I know you will, but stay safe..)

See you when you get back