Actually, I've been to Bulgaria a couple of times. As I may have mentioned before, my appearance there caused a mini sensation. All the men are black haired, and wear black Adidas track suits, with little Adidas shoulder bags to carry their fegs and cheap lighters in.
So, nobody had ever seen a blonde haired man in person before. Where'er I walked cool gales didn’t fan the glade, but young punks would shout, Hello, Mr Englishman ... !
When I pointed out to one that I'm Irish, he bellowed, Ok, Mr Guinness man ... !!
I was interested in all things Soviet there. They had marvellously dilapidated Soviet buses, real boneshakers, with awful plastic, sweaty seats. And wonderful Soviet trains on which you could still open the windows and doors when moving. Mobile signal strength varied, so it was quite common en route to see people hanging out of either to get better reception. The carriages were all corridor type, you were in an Alfred Hitchcock film.
Other than in the biggest towns, there were no platforms. You bought your ticket, walked across two or three railway tracks to get to the one on which your train was coming in, and stood there waiting - between tracks - while trains flew past on the neighbouring lines. On its arrival you climbed aboard your train via steps on the carriage. This was a seriously brilliant way to travel, and health and safety looked after themselves because people there were expected to take responsibility for their actions.
And the 'Khrushchev flats' (Khrushchyovka) were everywhere. Uncle Joe wasn't much bothered where you lived. But when Joe bought the collective farm, it occurred to new Red Czar, Nikita Khrushchev, that people might like to have a place of their own to live in, rather than the dire communal apartments most of them shared at that time.
So he pushed ahead with a programme to throw up thousands of luxury ... er ... low-cost, concrete-panelled or brick three-to-five-storied apartment buildings all across the Soviet Union during the early -1960s. Various improved, and taller, offspring came later, and many still stand. Each flat is still a tight, claustrophobic little box, with not an inch of wasted space. Paper thick walls, smelly stairwells, dodgy sewerage.
And don't even start me about the 'Trabi' (Trabant). Possibly the worst car ever made it was manufactured in the old GDR. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the 1957 Trabant had no tachometer, no turn signal, no seat belts or fuel gauge, no trunk liner, and used an oil/gas mix. The fact that these basic amenities were still missing when Taylor Swift was born is a bit more surprising. Indeed, when the last Trabant was produced in 1989 it still topped out at about 60 mph, which it took 21 seconds to reach from a stop. A highlight of my stays was to rattle down the road in one of these clunky, draughty, minimalist limos.
I was able to wear my hammer and sickle T-shirts without harassment. Not because the Bulgarians loved Uncle Joe etc., but because Russia and Bulgaria go back a long way, and there isn't the same fierce antipathy between them, as there is between, say, Russians and Poles. This was reflected, for instance, in the behaviour of the Red Army as it advanced westwards in World War II. There was very little raping, pillaging and looting as the Soviets swept through Bulgaria, compared to the savagery meted out in other front line countries.
But, of course, it all depends where you're standing. Some years ago I was having a meal in a wee place in Killylea. I was wearing a CCCP T-shirt. One of the waitresses was Lithuanian. When she saw the hammer and sickle she said rather grimly, In my country you go to gaol if you wear that awful thing ...
And she walked off without taking our order, and ignored us for the rest of the night. My son, who was at that difficult kind of age, threatened to reveal to her that I was currently deep into a biography of Khrushchev, one of my top three favourite tyrants, if we didn't let him have two puddings ...
Don’t forget: they won the Sam Maguire once
Jean detests Armagh. She lived in Saintfield for a while and it's gone to her head; she seems to think that Armagh is like Carryduff, without even the roundabout.
As I have often remarked, there's a sober, no-nonsense approach about Ardmachians that makes them all the more beguiling. If, for instance, a man is seen wearing a hat outside the narrow confines of the John Hewitt Summer School, or on any other dates besides 12/13 July, then he is quite sensibly deemed to be in need of a good kicking.
This unique communal magnanimity is only tempered, but never compromised, by the native Ardmachian's innate, justified and unerring urge, to denounce the affectation and pretension constantly exhibited by swellheads and smart arses and the like who ridicule puffer jackets and so on.
Jean just doesn't get the soul of this place. Take Armagh's recent blowout: the Georgian Christmas weekend. This year it even featured a Hot Food Village, with 'an abundance of street foods, artisan food and drink specialities' ... 17 different stalls, all selling hamburgers.
It strains credulity, but Jean had me sectioned once. I was allowed to bring Miss Lotte Lenya with me. The only rabbit she could find there was a big lad who thought he was a rabbit.
She quickly became a favourite of the head shrink, and he allowed her to accompany him on his morning rounds. To be honest, she looked at most of them as if they were daft, which they were.
He interviewed me, too. I told him I had terrible forebodings of personal disaster. He said I have pre traumatic stress disorder.
Has that got upper case initial letters? I asked.
Not yet, he replied.
Tight-arsed BBC NI news presenters
Long awaited return to busking duty in Belfast yesterday. And a remarkable thing happened as we passed the Continental Christmas Market at City Hall. Some of the crowd there noticed me, the word got around I was back, and, almost to a man, the whole lot left the Market and followed me the short step round to my pitch to hear some blues ... !
Next thing I knew, I was jolted awake as the train pulled into Gt Victoria Street Station.
You'll never guess who passed by later on. Tara Mills ... !! She was fiddling with her purse.
Only paper money, please, I said.
She walked on without even looking at me. That's what Donna Traynor was up against. And anyway, Catherine Morrison is far better looking.
But God has a plan for me. Down the street, trailing all his paraphernalia, came one of the famed street preachers who've taken over Belfast's open-air spaces. Boom box, mic, leaflets, portable stand on which a headline, The Wicked Shall be Turned Into Hell.
Surely you're not going to start here ... ? I asked.
Why? he replied, are you saved?
Yes, I said, for I am an existential nihilist.
He told me he was going to the Cornmarket. They've managed to turf out the Opera Guy, apparently. I'm impressed, for the Opera Guy is loud, and was the long time gang lord busker of that pitch. He's been chased round to outside Primark.
I changed tack. Go easy on the homosexualists, I said, it's bad PR, to say the least ...
And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them, he quoted.
Ephesians, I said.
You know your Bible, he said approvingly.
Well, there's good and bad in all of us, I Homer-like opined, I mean, take Hitler, for instance: ok, he was responsible for millions of horrific deaths, but on the other hand he really loved his dog ... maybe we need to re-evaluate ...
Are you serious ... ?!? he interrupted.
Of course, I am, I said and pointed to Miss Lotte Lenya, sure I have a dog myself, and when I get to the Pearly Gates, I expect to have my atheism overlooked because I've loved and cared for this beautiful girl all her life. Just like God does for us.
The scorner seeks wisdom but finds none, he said, but understanding is easy for a discerning person.
Proverbs, I said.
Later on, I could hear the Opera Guy round at the front of Primark.
I’ve been a member of Armagh County Club and Union for nigh on 40 years. This is in no way meant to be offensive, rather a statement of fact, but it is not a club of equals. There are many members who do not bring to it the quality, heritage, tradition, justifiable pride, and sense of culture that I do.
Nevertheless, I have remained a member, and there are some good things about the club: for instance, drink is very cheap, and Miss Lotte Lenya is welcome most of the time, and it's a quiet retreat when you need forty winks, and they now admit women, so Jean gets an occasional night out. Increasingly however, I have had misgivings about belonging.
One is expected, for example, to treat the lesser quality members (whose default condition is poverty) with a consideration they plainly don't deserve; there is even a fund, to which we are forced to contribute, for alleviating the circumstances of those who are enduring (usually self inflicted) hard times. At some events one is expected to wear a tie; I loathe ties. And when an occasion requires catering Miss Lotte Lenya is banned from the kitchen, thus preventing her from rigorously stalking chef during his preparations so that she may hoover up every accidentally dropped morsel of food, something she does with astonishing focus at home every time Jean so much as picks up a knife.
Furthermore, each year I have to pay a subscription of a hundred pounds or so to some or other nameless club bureaucrat who probably pockets at least half of it to run an affair with his secretarial floozie, and swan about enjoying Armagh's raucous night life.
For some time now I have been disenchanted with these and other, what I can only refer to as, infringements of my personal freedom and sovereignty. So much so that, a couple of years ago, I wrote to the president to inform him I was resigning. I pointed out that because the club had basked for so long in the reflected glow of my gracious and historic presence, and the prestige and wisdom it brought, that I thought it only fair I be allowed, after my exit, to continue to pop in any time I fancied a cheap drink or two, and a nap, with no further expense to myself.
You will be as shocked as I was when I tell you I received a terse reply in which he stated, outrageously, that not only had I to pay a further year's subscription as notice of quitting and to cover my 'existing commitments', but also that I would not be welcome ever to take a drink or a kip there again - something which he ludicrously referred to as 'cherry picking' - unless and until I come up with a mutually agreeable alternative scheme of association whereby I would somehow be entitled to enjoy all the benefits of club membership yet give back absolutely nothing in return.
This blunt refusal to see and embrace my perfectly reasonable and correct point of view is, of course, a predictable, purely spiteful attempt to administer a punishment beating. It will not cower me. I have a noble history of facing little Hitlers, and defeating them, singlehandedly. True, others, like Lotte and Jean, may suffer after I leave with no deal, but I am in the happy position of being well enough off to fill my drinks cabinet regularly, regardless of the club's tyranny...
It's rather annoying, but Jean has friends. Off she was going to see some mates, while I, as usual, sat on the sofa, talking to Miss Lotte Lenya.
Jean, a bit of an expert in having friends, said, It's your own fault. You never make an effort ... You have to put down that guitar, get off the sofa, and go outside ...
So far, so good, I thought, I can do that today.
But, and most importantly, she continued, you then have to take an interest in other people's lives, their ups and downs, their concerns; show a little understanding and tolerance ... empathise ...
Oh dear ...
When she came back I was still sitting on the sofa, practising guitar, and talking to Lotte ...
The Dishonesty of Honesty
He gave me a booklet. The Dishonesty of Atheism.
So, no sense of irony there ... He put his name and number on the back.
In case you need to talk sometime, he said.
If you engage with them, even briefly, they always seem to assume that you are, therefore, 'searching'. You might, in fact, just be passing the time of day - which is a truer, simpler, and more elegant description of our exchange - but Stan (his name) religiously multiplied the entities to find a tortured soul.
He asked me what an existential nihilist is.
Someone who, as The Damned put it, just can't be happy these days, I replied.
They choose their own salvation or lack of, he said.
You're misrepresenting The Damned there, I told him.
But, even though he couldn't have been much younger than me, he'd never heard of Captain Sensible, Rat Scabies, etc.
It's in our nature to search for God, he assured me.
Not if existence precedes essence, I countered.
But he'd never heard of Sartre. This is what happens when you find all the answers in one, and therefore know everything. You never seem to know anything else, to paraphrase Philip Roth.
He hadn't heard of Roth either.
It'll end in tears, I said.
And I was right. When I got home, the moon was rising, and a neighbour told me that Ivy's beautiful filly has been sold and will be moving away very soon ...
When I paint my masterpiece
You know, said Jean to me, sometimes I think everyone has a book in them, except you ...
This is high level hate speech, of course, fuelled in part, no doubt, by the irrational Proddy loathing for Taigs.
I mean, she went on, all you've ever actually done in 70 years is fiddle around with that guitar and scribble away at stuff no-one ever looks at ...
This is a complete misrepresentation of course. I've done plenty, even if no particular instance of me ever doing anything springs to mind.
Like the majority of people at my age, I would be appalled to look in the mirror and see an insufferable, washed-up, obnoxious, repetitive, old bore who had achieved nothing, made a hames of everything, contributed sweet FA, fiddled away like Nero at stuff he had no talent for, and thus squandered an entire life.
Has it ever occurred to you, asked Jean, that this existential nihilism of yours - the denial of any meaning, or shape, or purpose to life, and the assertion of the universe's indifference and randomness, and the uselessness of striving for anything - is the precise context of the life lived by a man who's decided to sit on his lazy arse for 70 years and do absolutely nothing ... ? What a happy coincidence for you, eh ... ?
You have to smile. Jean never went to university so, of course, is out of her depth here. Plus, being a Prod, her grades at school were never going to be as good as mine, either. But bless her, she tries her best anyway, in between cooking and cleaning.
Trust her to conflate my languor with the principle of least action. She's blissfully unaware that for every system you want to describe (in this case, me), there's a function called the action, which takes on the smallest possible value for the behaviour of that system (me) in nature. Even if you consider all the things a system (me) could do and you calculate the action for each of them, the case you actually observe is the one with the Minimal action.
My M&S lifestyle
Last night, as I used my new M&S pizza cutter, I thought, This may not quite equate with the discovery and harnessing of electricity, but it's definitely up there, near enough. I could have sliced all night.
Yet ... the tragic fact is that a 70 year old man was dining on a Sainsbury's ham and pineapple pizza (reduced), because Jean can't be bothered to leave pre-cooked meals in the freezer when she goes off to enjoy herself in Strangford.
How did it come to this ... ? It's all part of today's society-wide malaise i.e. the abdication of responsibility. Unfortunately, Jean is a prime example of this new religion: look after no. 1, and to Hell with the rest.
Further proof (if it were needed) came this morning. Beans on toast tonight, I thought. But on inspection, no bread in the breadbin, no tins of beans in the cupboard.
⏩Michael Praetorius spent his working life in education and libraries. Now retired, he does a little busking in Belfast . . . when he can get a pitch. He is TPQ's fortnightly Wednesday columnist.