Monday, 25 January 2010

There isn’t much point in writing about hot weather. Old friend Ryszard Kapuscinski did it better than anyone. Try this, about trying to sleep on a tropical night in Accra:

It is too stuffy. Damp, sticky air fills the room. But then, it’s not air. It’s wet cotton. Inhale, and it’s like swallowing a ball of cotton dipped in warm water. It’s unbearable. It nauseates, it prostrates, it unhinges. The mosquitoes sting, the monkeys scream. Your body is sticky with sweat, repulsive to touch. Time stands still. Sleep will not come. At six in the morning, the same invariable six in the morning all year round, the sun rises. Its rays increase the dead steam-bath closeness. You should get up. But you don’t have the strength. You don’t tie your shoes because the effort is bending over is too much. You feel worn out like an old pair of slippers. You feel used up, toothless, baggy. You are tormented by undefined longings, nostalgias, dusky pessimisms. You wait for the day to pass, the night to pass, for all of it, damn it all to hell, to finally pass.

Recife in high summer is a bit like this, minus the monkeys. Particularly if you’re coming back from the frozen north. At first it is a blessing – waiting on the tarmac at Guarulhos Airport for my connection home (home!) the sun hits my face for the first time in what feels like months and I feel instantly, gloriously revived. Winter clothes are shed and the body feels pounds lighter and more supple – I feel as though I could almost fly the 2000kms or so to Pernambuco simply by leaping into the air and flapping my arms.

But that’s São Paulo, where it doesn’t often get all that hot and where it rains enough to create breaks in the heat. Recife is different. Recife in January and February and March is pure, unadulterated heat – heat so thick you might touch it, so thick you have to push your way through it. In the morning things are better, particularly very early. There is a breeze off the sea and the clouds scud happily over the coastal plain. From up on the Alto Da Sé things already look ominous over downtown Recife - oddly, the weather often seems to be nicer, or at least lighter, in Olinda, than it does down in Boa Vista and Recife Antigo and Derby, where great piles of black clouds trap the heat in. By afternoon the same clouds are over Olinda, as thick as clotted blood, and by night walking around is much like Ryszard puts it – like lying in a hot tent and zipping up your sleeping bag up over your head and lying there and very slowly breathing in and out..

But however hot it is, and despite my heat-induced menopausal swollen ankles, it’s better than the cold. I should know – I’ve just suffered five weeks of it, and no amount of nice cups of tea make it any better. The endless grey-black skies, stretching for miles, right up to the foreboding bulk of the Mournes, sap the spirit, making it hard to believe that a person could in any way be happy here. The wind chills you to your bones, making even simple pleasures like a stroll or a drink or a cigarette out of doors an agonising torture. Blasted and beaten down by all this climatic brutality, the streets are empty – people scurry from car to house to shop to work with no time to talk or smile or exchange a greeting. Instead scowls and scrunched up faces are the standard defence against the biting cold. It’s hard to describe and easy to underestimate how the weather affects our moods and our personalities. Perhaps a good example, and always remembering that national stereotyping is an ugly ally, is that sitting in the Esquina Do Sol bar down the road, under the stars and the palm trees, feeling the warm air on my face, I watch a hugely fat and somewhat scantily clad woman clamber to her feet and dance (carnaval is coming and the sap is rising), and I can’t help but imagine the stonily silent Finns supping on their lonely vodkas, small talk emphatically eschewed, pondering their journeys home through frozen, empty streets.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last words to Ryszard, with a few ripe observations on a hot night’s finest bed pal – a drink.

In the tropics, drinking is obligatory. In Europe, the first thing two people say when they meet is “Hello. What’s new?” When people greet each other in the tropics, they say “What would you like to drink?” They frequently drink during the daytime, but in the evening the drinking is mandatory, the drinking is premeditated. After all, it is the evening that shades into night, and it is the night that lies in wait for anyone reckless enough to have spurned alcohol. The tropical night is a hardened ally of all the world’s makers of whiskey, cognac, liqueurs, schnapps and beers, and the person who denies them their sales is assailed by the night’s ultimate weapon: sleeplessness. Insomnia is always wearing, but in the tropics it is killing. A person punished all day by the sun, by a thirst that can’t be satisfied, maltreated and weakened, has to sleep.

Finally, thanks again to The Friend From A Small Caribbean Island, now re-christened Antonio Conselheiro, on account of his fine work in leading a band of baseball playing pilgrims across the drylands of the nordeste. It was Antonio who put me on to Ryszard Kapuscinski in the first place, even though, ironically and probably wisely, he refuses to let nary a drop of whiskey, cognac, liqueur, schnapps or beer pass his lips. He’s probably a better man for it.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Re-acclimatisation/Re-integration study (Phase 1). Subject removed from home environment (HE) 22/12/09. Subject released into test environment (TE) 23/12/09.

Upon release into TE subject displayed initial signs of physical discomfort, principally in relation to air and surface temperature in TE which were found to be around 30 degrees (Celsius) below those to which the subject had become accustomed in HE. Various other external factors which seemed to trouble the subject upon initial exposure to TE were, as follows:

1) Coinage - subject showed signs of confusion in regard to differentiating various forms of coinage, particularly with respect to £2 pound coins, which subject seemed to consider “big £1 coins”. This was surprising given that only two years have passed since subject’s last visit to HE.

2) Communication – subject showed an inclination to “smile” and “chat” with individuals not personally known to subject that was considered more in keeping with interpersonal relations in HE than in TE. It was observed that subject’s inclination to “smile” and “chat” was occasionally the cause of discomfort amongst individuals resident in TE (TEs).

3) Physical Appearance – subject displayed surprise, even annoyance, with regard to the physical appearance of many TEs. Subject was heard to utter, sotto voce, words such as "ponce" and "bloody Matt and Sophie", particularly with regard to twenty or thirty something male TEs, many of whom were observed to sport expensive looking hairstyles not dissimilar to those used by the pop phenomenon known as “boy bands”.

Following initial release observations subject was observed more closely in various other social or non-social situations common to TE environment, namely (1) Christmas Dinner With The Family (2) Shopping Trip (3) Watching Television (4) Out On The Piss.

1) Christmas Dinner With The Family – Subject was felt to have coped successfully with this social situation. Indeed, in subject's generally high levels of aggression, impatience and frustration towards members of subject’s own family subject was felt to have acclimatised perfectly to life in TE. Subject appeared not to enjoy in any way the company of subject’s family, which is of course very much a TE, rather than HE trait. There is little evidence, therefore, of continuing HE contamination as a result of time spent with family groups in HE. One incident worthy of note – subject appeared to be highly amused by DVD of television series known as “Father Ted”, even going so far as to point at various members of subject’s family and draw comparisons with characters appearing in series (subject’s mother compared to character known as Mrs Doyle, subject’s sister to character known as Father Jack Hackett), and shouting “Craggy Island? You don’t need to watch TV to see Craggy Island, just look out the feckin’ window!”

2) Shopping Trip – Subject showed initial feelings of happiness at range of products on display and comparative low prices (in relation to prices in HE), though upon performing various calculations (it is assumed these calculations related to so-called “currency exchange” between HE and TE) subject appeared considerably less happy and elected not to make any purchases. In street environment subject also, on occasion, displayed behaviour considered entirely normal in HE but not necessarily in keeping with TE social mores – such as intent and prolonged staring at female TEs aged between 15 and 20 years of age. After a brief period of acclimatisation, however, subject appeared to remember such behaviour not considered appropriate in TE. Subject also displayed considerable frustration and anger when “browsing” in retail environments known as “book shops”, particularly when looking at the so-called “best seller list”.

3) Watching Television - Subject displayed feelings of confusion and bewilderment when watching television, particularly with regard to so-called TE “celebrity culture”. On occasion subject was heard to shout “who the feck is he” and “why the feck is she famous”, particularly while watching the television programme known as “Christmas Top Of The Pops”.

4) Out On The Piss – Perhaps the environment where subject appeared most ill at ease. Subject displayed tremendous feelings of frustration and impatience with regard to “queuing at the bar for a drink”, a somewhat antiquated TE custom generally unknown in HE, and also at the practice of each person buying his or her own, very large drink, as opposed to HE practice of dividing one large drink into various small drinks amongst members of a group. Subject appeared appalled by non-smoking regulations in bars and by what subject described as the “feckin barbaric” requirement to stand in street, in sub-zero temperatures, in order to smoke. Subject appeared close to display of violent aggression when informed by security guards post-11pm that subject could no longer take subject’s drink outside to enjoy while smoking, and similarly at midnight when bar staff informed subject that drinks were no longer available for purchase. Further difficulties were observed on subject’s journey home. Here it should be noted that as a result of recent socio-economic influences known as “the peace process”, “massive government investment” and “gentrification”, TE as previously known to subject has undergone considerable change since subject’s last visit. Perhaps as a result of this, subject showed considerable discomfort in relation to the number of “English accents” to be heard in TE, particularly upon overhearing, at 3 o’clock in the morning, a young woman outside a café displaying just such an “English accent” and informing her friends that she had just ordered “four skinny cappuccinos”. As a result subject was heard to shout “stick your cappuccinos up your arse” and “I liked it better when it was a war zone”.

This concludes observations relating to subject’s re-integration into TE (Phase 1). It should be noted that Phase 1 (or “Northern Ireland”) is considered to be phase (or “region”) of TE most assimilated with HE and as such region least likely to cause serious problems in relation to subject’s re-integration process. Report on subject’s re-integration into TE Phase 2 (or “Feckin’ London”), considered likely to provide far greater challenges, to follow.