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Welcome to “Erbil”, the bar of ex-aidworkers

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the public bar is closed
I read through the last (for now) post of Harry Rud, an aidworker who returned from several years in Afghanistan, now working at the organisation’s UK HQ. Someone mentioned in the comments, we should start an ex-aidworkers’ bar. A place to indulge in reminiscent memories of dusty pasts…

I thought.. What would be the ideal ex-aidworkers’ bar? The bar is to be called “Erbil”, for sure. To remember the UN bar up there as the only safe place to drink (and eat for that matter) after the Iraq war (the second one that is).

The bar is really the only place you can go, to meet those in the same “zone” as you. THE spot to chill out and exchange another story “I remember when I was in..” after yet another day trying to save the world and realizing you didn’t make a shit of difference. Was mostly after catching your two drivers syphoning out the petrol from your car. That was this morning. This afternoon, you fired the guard as he fell asleep on his stool next to the gate and did not wake up even if you hooted right next to him.

There are old yellow-ish pictures on the wall showing people in happier times. All of them taking in the same bar, of course. Mixed with postcards sent from holiday places. All reachable within the R&R cycle.
There is a trace of stains from the time John thought it would be fun to shake that cheap champagne bottle on his birthday, years ago. A bottle he risked his life for, smuggling it through airport customs.

The tables and chairs are a mishmash of different makes. Mostly cheap plastic. Collected after the bombing of a local community center back in 2005.

The servings of drinks differ as the weeks go by, dependent on what container Patrice – the MSF logistician – was able to smuggle into this darned muslim country. Some months, whiskey is the only drink, as the beer container got stuck at the port, lack of sufficient baksheesh.
It is amazing in how many different ways you can drink whiskey. And in how many ways you can use it. Including lightening up a short shot, and then, flame and all, put it on your forehead where it sucks itself out of oxygen. The half burned round sucking mark stays on one’s forehead for a week. And is the trademark of “Erbil”, our bar.
Mal once tried the same trick by sticking two of those burning shots onto his balls. He can only grin at that memory now… As I said, there are many things you can do with whiskey.

Andrew is always sitting at the same stool at the corner, no matter when you come in. You wonder if he really has a job at Care International, or if he became a beneficiary himself. His brother, Jolly -nobody knows his real name- is famous for the fancy dive he took in the swimming pool in the back. Forgetting the fact they never filled it up again after the 1995 earthquake which cracked up the foundation of the pool. And the spilling water flooded the underground safety shelter. Something which really upset that ex-Foreign Legion security officer we once had. Remember him? I remember his face, but can’t remember his name. Rodriguez, wasn’t it? He did not last two days after we took those shots from him dancing naked on this very same bar, and emailed it to the director of UNDSS in New York.
Little did we know they wouldn’t think that was not funny. Bureaucrats!

They serve a mean chicken, here. Full of spices to kill everything living in your stomach. Special recipe of Paul, who once owned the bar. Until he drove over a landmine up-country, shopping for two lambs to put on the barbie on Xmas.
It takes about one hour to get the grilled chicken serving, as all is fresh. The chickens roam in the backyard. After the order the cook disappears for 10 minutes with an axe in her hand.
If you want to understand what food poisoning means, you eat the salad too.

The music is always the same choice out of five CDs. The rest was nicked. Aidworkers can be thugs when it comes to personal entertainment. The CD of Tom Jones’ “Sexbomb” is kept for special occasions. Diana Ross’ “I’m coming out” always keeps hicking up at the same spot, until the bartender gives the CDplayer a kick.

But you don’t hear the music, you concentrate on that drink, and the distant noise of your VHF handheld, as a desperate radio operator tries to go through the daily radio check list. And on the distant muffled sounds of yet another grenade attack (all pre-recorded of course).

There is a large, half torn poster of Bukavu, at Lake Kivu. Must be from the Fifties, as the cypresses are not chopped into firewood yet, and the Hotel Karibu is still there. Those were the times when the living was good, and aidworkers were well respected civil servants, representing the social welfare and education arm of the colonizing country.

The electricity is cut twice a day, after which Abdul, the current owner, manually kickstarts the old grumpy 5 KVA generator, which makes the lights shimmer slightly in a rhythmic pattern.

The guests are always the same. Julie, ex-Jalalabad (shagged on R&R in Islamabad) sitting with Patricia (shagged in Juba), and Olivia, the ex-UNHCR reproductive health specialist from Goma (shagged in Mombasa). Olivia actually picked you up with the catch phrase “I have a container full of condoms, expiring next month” (HT Michael). Or was that Shelly? Anyways, does not matter, all of them give you the evil eye anyways. As if it was your fault you wanted to remain celibataire and were only looking for a quick fix?

At the next table we have Joaquim from ECHO, still looking for that single killer project to fund. A project that would propel him into the higher echelons of the Brussels Ivory Tower. For the moment, he is doing his best looking important, going through the 50 pages assessment report, full of baseline data and stakeholder interviews.
Cathy, the Texan chick (shagged in Monrovia) from USAID sits next to him, reading Bush’s new book “How I won the Iraq war”. As usual, Antoine, the head of mission Lutheran World Relief, joins in (tried to shag you in the Kigali transit lounge, of all places). Bible at hand, as per habit. You remember the fight you had with him, as he kept on spilling profanity on the security repeater in the middle of the night. Usually after he crawled back from the bar to his compound. You’ve never seen anyone wasted like this.

And then there is the table of the three OCHA dudes. Normally the loudest of all tables, as each keeps on raising their voice on top of the other. They never shut up, do they, those OCHA dudes? Professional deformity, the talking. They are either the youngest or the oldest of the whole bunch. Either fresh graduates naive enough to think aidworkers want to be coordinated, or the pre-retirees fired from every single other agency for incompetency.
Just last month, they all had a fit when their office was closed. Security phase IV, meaning “essential staff only”. It was the public acknowledgement OCHA was not essential, all found. Except the Humanitarian Coordinator, of course, who got NY to intervene and allow the “Holy Threesome” as you call them, back into the country.

But all of that is “what once was”, of course. Memories mixed with the cheap whiskey. Memories as all of us have decent jobs now. Jobs none of us likes. With only one common thought: “I wish I was back there”. In Tblisi, Luanda, Bor, Djamena, Peshawar, Dili, Mogadishu, Nazareth (in Ethiopia, not Israel) or Gulu.

And then at 21:45 someone rings the bell (an old ship’s bell that George found on the shipwrecks’ beach near Karachi) and shouts “Last call, curfew at twentytwohundred!”. After which we order those last 10 shots-to-go. Hand back our make-believe handhelds and safari jackets at the reception, pick up our attache case, straighten our tie, and step into our BMW.

Driving back to our suburban villa we make a mental note not to forget to pick up the lawn fertilizer tomorrow morning. And the tickets for the mid-term holiday in Tenerife.

Picture courtesy Lost in Berlin

Written by Peter

June 17th, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Posted in Funny,Stories

Tagged with

Letter to the owner of the Italian Trash Company

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Italian trash on the streets

Italian trash on the streets

When I landed in Rome, finally home after five months, there were three things I noticed on the way back from the airport:

  1. A beautiful sunset, the kind you only see in Italy;
  2. I had no mobile phone signal most of the way;
  3. Trash piled up everywhere next to the waste bins.

Sunsets, we always cover extensively here on The Road. The paleolithic Italian mobile phone coverage, is a subject I will bitch about later. But the garbage problem, I have to revisit now. After all, it was the UN World Environment Day yesterday.

First, let me get this clear: I love living in Italy. But I never got my head around the fact why garbage is such a problem here. I mean, I don’t live in a slum area, but in a village close to the capital, known as a weekend resort for the rich and famous – how much I fall out of that category. Still, trash piles up as if we lived in a slum…

And it is not as if people don’t mind: People stopped I was walking around to take pictures of the three trash bins around my house. They looked at me, and at the rubble, only to sigh “A disgrace, isn’t it?”. One elder woman says: “Yes, young man, take pictures, document it, and do something about this scandal!”.
So I will.

Problem is, where to start? Luckily, one of the trash skips had a man’s picture on it:

Italian trash

With my limited Italian, I understand this Mister Armeni must be the proud owner of the trash company called “Forza Italia”.

I guess the mother company is called “Il Popolo della Liberta – Berlusconi”. Probably “Berlusconi” must be the overall umbrella of all Italian trash companies, then. At least that was the old lady’s claim: “Berlusconi: Rifiuti! Rigiuti!”

As this Mister Armeni kindly displayed his picture on his company’s trash cans, I gather he was asking for feedback. So I wrote him a letter:

To: Mister Armeni
Owner Regional Trash company
“Forze Ragione Regione”
Member of National Trash company “Forza Italia”

Dear Mister Armeni,

Thank you for soliciting feedback on the services of your trash company. I would like to tell you how much I appreciate you must be owning a lot of wastage, and as part of the national trash conglomerate “Forza Italia”, I am sure it must be a real challenge to daily hide garbage from the public eye.

Still, I would like to tell you that despite your best efforts, garbage seems to pile up more and more since you took over the company. I hope you will soon deal with the situation, or speed up selling out your company to the well-known South Italian alliance specializing in the disposal of (radio active) trash (in the Mediterranean). I heard that company is already part of the National Trash company “Forza Italia” anyways…

Looking forward to see progress in your national programme “Trash Italy Fast”!


Written by Peter

June 8th, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Posted in Funny,Ranting,Soapbox

Tagged with ,

A false start for the day

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flat tyre in Italy
Here I am, waking up tickled by sunlight. I get a shower, water the plants, clean up the place a bit, get into the car, drive up the highway. And then I hear a funny noise in the back…

Oops, punctured tyre.. No problem I have done this before… A Smart does not come with a spare tyre, but with a handy electric pump. I park on the emergency lane. 30 ton truck racing 2 inches past you. You “pump it up” and drive off..

Oops… puncture too big…. I barely make it to the next gas station. All flat again. No problem.. I have a can of tyre glue filler (how do you call that stuff?), made for just that. Except that there is no tool to get the valve off the tyre. No way to fit the glue tube onto the tyre.

flat tyre in Italy

Well, this is a gas station, so I ask the pompista. Nope. “No tools.” He points at the gas station at other side of the highway: “Ask there”. Luckily there is an underpass. Off I go.
I explain with the best of my Italian, that there is a problem with my “bomba” and I am looking for a “bombista”.. The guy gives me a funny look but no luck. “If you get the tyre here, I will fix you up with a second hand one”, he says. I think that is what he says.

Meanwhile next to my car, a queue is forming. Three buses of Dutch tourists wanna go to the loo, and line up right next to my car. And each has a comment. Not thinking I would speak Dutch. We’re in Italy after all. Until I comment on their comments.

Long story short, my luck comes in the form of an angel, a friend working close by. She dropped by the local garage, picks up a wrench and a tool to remove the valve. When she arrives, I introduce her to the Dutch tourists as the representative of the local automobile club. They all comment they want to change tyres too.

Anyway, glue goes in, but as soon as I pump up the tyre, it comes out of a dozen different holes. It seems I drove into every single nail in Rome. Tyre has to come off. Smart no come with jack. Back to the pompista to explain I have a problem with my ‘bomba’.. No tools. Friend’s car has. Fits well. Off comes the tyre.

flat tyre in Italy
With tyre and friend back to the other side of the highway. I ask again for the ‘bombista’. Friend asks me what I mean? I say “a guy who fixes tyres”.. “Ah” she says, ‘GOMMISTA’, you mean. ‘BOMBISTA’ is someone who makes bombs…” No wonder nobody had tools for my “BOMBA” (bomb). Oh well.

The GOMMISTA gets the tyre off, and fixes a second hand one he has laying around. “Should get you going to the next garage”, he says. 20 Euros. Cheap to get back onto the road.

Back to the other side of the highway (thank God for underpasses), fixed the tyre while realizing this is not the typical picture: Normally you would have a blonde saved by a mechanical savvy guy. Here I am being saved by a female angel..

Anyways, dropped the car off at a garage, and got a ride back home. Back where I started off, four hours later. Car to be picked up in the evening.

Will give it another try tomorrow morning…

Written by Peter

September 9th, 2009 at 9:47 pm

Posted in Funny,Stories

How did I get here?

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Direction signs

Sometimes, you get sucked into a situation. It is like a hole in the sand your in. While trying to climb out of it, you actually make the hole wider and deeper.
And as things progress, your efforts get more frantic and in the end you have a bloody deep hole.

Don’t we all get ‘sucked’ into situations without even realizing it… And then, one day, you wake up, and look at it all with fresh eyes… When that happens to me, my AHA-thought concentrates around two things only: “How the hell did I get here?” and “How is it possible I have let it slip that far?”

An example, on a more lively and cheerful note: When I lived in Uganda, one morning the driver did not pick up my on time, and I nearly missed my flight.

I asked why he was late, and he shrugged:
– Not my fault…
– Why not?
– It was the neighbour’s wife’s brother fault.
– Why?
– I have an electric clock with an alarm, but it did not work.
– …
– My neighbour had connected his electricity line to mine. He had locked up the connection in a box with a padlock.
– …
– The wife had visited her brother.
– Whose wife?
– My neighbour’s… She had visited her brother.
– …
– She had left her keys there. The padlock key was amongst them.
– …
– In the evening, she returned home. There was a shortcircuit in his electricity connection, which also shut off my electricity. They could not repair it, as they called the wife’s brother to come with that key. But he did not.
– ….
– So my electric clock did now work, and I overslept…

To get up in the morning, the guy had to resolve the electricity problem, but ran into solving problems which were related to problems which were related to other problems which somehow related to the original problem…

And that is a problem, you see?

Written by Peter

September 9th, 2009 at 9:45 pm

Posted in Funny,Stories

Living in Italy: Appointments – the sequel

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Dentist tools

The week after the disillusioning appuntamente (appointments) with the hair dresser and the garage, I stepped into another appuntamento adventure. This time with a dentist.

I had never been to a dentist in Italy, but the week before last, a tooth ache appeared out of no-where. I could feel the pain spiking down to the bottom of my spine, a sign the nerve of the tooth was touched.

Via my Friend E, I got in touch with a dentist and made an appointment for “next Wednesday at 9:30 AM”. This was my first surprise, as dentists are pretty busy.

I stood at the porch of their practice at 9:25, and they arrived at 9:30, on the dot: The dentist, a young bright-blue-eyed woman, and the receptionist, a lady with a godly smile.

The dentist looked at my teeth. She shook her head. She would need X-rays and an ultrasound cleansing to remove all chalk residues before she could do anything else.

One was work for an Xray technician, and the other for a dental hygienist. I had an instantaneous nightmare of an endless appuntamente string. The dentist laughed at my sad face and said she would take an Xray of the hurting tooth herself, and put in a temporary filling. My first good luck of the day, as otherwise, I would have started my holidays – the next day! – with hurting teeth…

Half an hour later, we tried to find a blank spot in the agenda of the dental hygienist, but nothing seemed possible until September… And the Xray person was not available for months neither.

Both the receptionist and my dentist started a soft discussion, and in the end, the receptionist said:
– “OK, we will do the Xray session in two weeks, followed the next hour with the root canal for your hurting tooth… But we will do the dental hygiene session now…”
– “Now?” I asked.
– “Now”, she winked.. “I am a dental hygienist too. Today is a calm day at the reception, so I will do it. Is that ok?”
– “More than OK!”..

One hour later, I was back on the street. I had a dental appuntamento that had actually worked. They did even twice as much work as foreseen. Plus I had my dental hygiene session, for which I had not even taken an appointment.

So why did the appuntamente with hair dresser and the garage not work out, while I had no trouble at the dentist?

My theory: The first two were men. The latter were with two women. Proof efficiency in the Italian society revolves around the women, not the men. Punto.

More about Living in Italy on The Road

Picture courtesy Dentist Tools (obviously!)

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Written by Peter

September 1st, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Posted in Funny,Stories