Big Mac & Pizza (Episode One)
INTRODUCTION : "Do You Speak English?"
Let me set the scene for you here. Between 1989 and 1993, I travelled the world, well certain parts of it, installing computer systems that would design textile patterns for weaving towels, ties, the washing instructions label on the back of your shirt or T-shirt, suit linings, furniture fabric and so on and so on. Yeah, yeah, pretty boring I hear you cry - get on with it.
I'd be on my own on most occasions as it was a one-man job. More than often it'd be quite lonely and quite depressing, especially in some of the more undesirable countries. But it was my job, and until I found something else, I'd just have to put up with it. There was some consolation though, each trip meant I'd be on certain allowances, a daily amount of money to cover food, accommodation, and gratuities - odds n sods from telephone calls to taxi rides to laundry services. Occasionally I was on expenses only, a sharp difference, meaning if I didn't have a receipt, I couldn't claim back anything.
Obviously an allowance was the preferred option and by having a fixed amount, it meant that the less I spent, the more I could put in my pocket if you know what I mean. Some people use the term ‘playing the violin' but I had to get something out of it. It wasn't like I was travelling abroad visiting the exotic parts of the world. If I told people I was going to Brazil they'd think I was spending all my time lying on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro or partying during the carnival season, or if I said I was off to Spain, they'd think I'd be boozing it up on the Costa Del Sol. The truth of the matter is that I was working in the textile industry and so visited the industrial areas of these countries, not exactly the tourist spots.
Eating sensibly, but not over expensively meant I'd bring home large wads of cash to blow on whatever I pleased, or rather whatever the wife wanted. I found through experience that ‘enjoyable, cheap' food would normally mean a cheeseburger or a pizza, washed down with the odd bottle of beer and maybe a dozen or so donuts. Now as some countries have eating habits that quite frankly make you want to puke, I have to say thank heavens for free trade and international franchises.
I wonder what shit I'd have had to live on if it weren't for the fact that, in almost every country I worked, there was, low and behold, a McDonalds or a Pizza Hut or a Dunkin' Donuts.
You could say for the period between 1989 and 1993, I lived on Big Mac's and pizza, but I'll try not to dwell too much on that as I reflect on this personal journey of mine, looking back on the cultures, people, experiences, highlights, and lowlights of being an international jet setter (yeah right).
Please bear with me as I get technical for a moment, just to finish off setting the scene for you. Most of the time, as previously mentioned, I'd be on my own installing these large and somewhat powerful computer systems, using my specialist tools of the trade, about ten floppy disks! Sounds simple? It was. The installation process took less than an hour.
However I also had to teach the customer how to use it. This training aspect, could take weeks, especially as in many cases there was a language barrier. Most places had someone who could speak English, which made the job in hand quite easy really, but when there wasn't, it was bloody hard work. I remember being asked to learn a language, but when your job involves travelling anywhere, exactly which language do you learn?
Being the typical lazy Englishman that I am, I didn't bother. It's something our nation is renowned for really, probably because we're an Island and we're ‘cut-off' from foreign influences. I mean think about it, we just don't bother learning to speak any foreign shit. When we go abroad on holiday, most Brits head for those places where there's a mini England, like your Benidorm's and Aya Napa's, in other words the Blackpool's of the world with sunshine, egg and chips, and copies of The Sun or The Daily Mirror.
I guess what I'm saying is that too many people still believe in Rule Britannia, when the British Empire had a foothold in all corners of the globe, and our ‘civilised' manners would be respected and mirrored by the conquered ‘barbarians' we had trampled over. Sometimes I think our nation is so far up it's own arse it disrespects other countries and their traditions.
We don't embrace their way of living, demanding instead, that they speak like us, eat like us, and behave like us. So that means Sunday roasts with Yorkshire pudding, pints of lager, tea with milk and two sugars, drunken violent youths, hoards of sex mad half-naked alco-pop chain-smoking slappers, soccer thugs, fast food, curry houses, littered streets, Eastenders, driving on the left and anything else you can think of which shows our ignorance to any overseas nation.
Anyway, I didn't learn a language. I picked up the odd word here and there, always found out how to ask for a beer and became fluent in the swear words of the world, a fascinating topic and if I ever went on Mastermind, I reckon my specialists subject would be "how to say fuck in a foreign tongue."
So that's it, the scene is set. The countries I visited were wide and varied, the job was the same but the enjoyment and experiences gained were not always pretty.
All you need to do now is sit down, relax, make sure your seat is in the upright position and enjoy my guide to the world - as I saw it!
BELGIUM : "Why Is That Waiter Sticking His Tongue Out?"
The words ‘boring' and ‘Belgium' go hand in hand if you ask me. When I decided to write about the countries I'd worked in the obvious thing to me was to do it alphabetically. Unfortunately it means I'm going to bore the pants off you with my adventures, or lack of them, in boring Belgium. Trust me, the other countries I recall get better once you manage to read past this one, which by the way I'm keeping short and sweet because there's not much to say about the place really. I mean the chocolate is nice, bloody nice actually. It's a bit expensive for my liking though, but no other country can produce it as good, and satisfy the appetite of any would-be chocoholic than the Belgian variety.
I went to Belgium three times, the first being the longest period of all, albeit only two weeks, but two weeks which included my birthday. The night was spent with a colleague who'd travelled with me. The two of us were sat inside this pub full of peanuts, the ones you pop open and discard the shell - monkey nuts I call them. It's a great gimmick if you want my opinion. There we were drinking ridiculously strong lager in a dark dingy pub full of beer barrels containing monkey nuts, free for all. I tell you what, if I'd been on my own, I'd have eaten there every night. For the cost of a few drinks I'd have saved a fortune, or better still I could've popped in, stuffing handfuls into every orifice I could find on me and gone back to the hotel feasting for free on monkey nuts and water!
But I was with a colleague and I guess he wouldn't appreciate my extreme survival habits in order to bring home a little bit extra dough. Instead we'd sit in the hotel restaurant each night, unless we got lucky and were taken out to eat by our hosts, which meant my cash stayed firmly inside my wallet. The moths were safe and could continue breeding!
My birthday however was a rather depressing one I suppose. It was a time when I was young enough to be out drinking like there was no tomorrow with my mates – the days before I was married and before the kids came along. Being in another country meant I was to all intense and purpose, celebrating by myself – all quite sad really!
I was in Belgium to get trained on the computer system that would set me off on my worldwide travels. My colleague was learning the same system and would be doing the same job, though we'd never travel together. Computer system installations are as I've said in this particular case, a one-man job, and I'd learn in time that boredom and loneliness would become the norm.
The people who looked after us, put us up in a nice clean hotel. It even had BBC television, which was great at the time as I spent the first Sunday afternoon glued to it watching Newcastle United lose in the F. A. Cup - most satisfying - I'm a Sunderland supporter you see (though I won't bore you too much with my passion for the ‘red and white cause' - for that you can read my ‘autobiography' titled ‘Why Do I Do It?' - assuming you can find anyone brave enough or daft enough to stock it).
My colleague wasn't a Sunderland supporter. He wasn't really a football fan, but took interest because he knew of my ‘addiction.' We had little in common really apart from having the same job title. I was in my early twenties; he was fast approaching forty. In fact one night he worked out he was old enough to be my father. Fair enough then ‘Dad' I kept calling him as we sat in the restaurant each night, me studying the price list first before choosing what to eat.
The first night we sat down I remember the waiter trying to tell us what the ‘special of the day' was - and I thought everyone in Belgium spoke English! Anyway he started to make ‘mooing' noises so we thought straight away, a nice juicy steak (with some chips and ketchup please).
It came out swimming in some sauce, hiding all of the meat, but it smelt good and although very soft tasted good as well. The waiter came back waffling away, obviously asking us if we were enjoying our meal - making the mooing noises again, but this time sticking his tongue out.
As he went off I realised this wasn't a nice juicy steak but a bloody cow's tongue. Yuk! My colleague tucked into the lot, ate the remainder of mine as I just polished off my chips, a few bottles of beer and some ice cream.
Okay, that doesn't sound too bad - a cow's tongue - maybe you've tried it and loved it, but once I realised what it was and started to examine the texture by scraping all the sauce off the top, I could see those ‘lumpy-dimples' you have on your tongue, in fact I thought for one split second it started to wiggle as I rapidly went off wanting to eat anymore of it.
As we ‘retired' for the evening and went back to our rooms, I couldn't settle, not so much the thought of eating something I found partially disgusting, but because I was still hungry. So I got dressed and went out to look for some take-away joint. Low and behold, around the corner was a McDonalds. Ahh! Big Mac, (probably made with cow's tongue), but boy was that tasty.
I think I managed to persuade my colleague to eat there only once, he knew the relevance of eating cheap to pocket some cash, but wasn't into it as extravagantly as I was.
The only other tasty highlight of my visit to Belgium was an Italian restaurant we were taken to one night. Call me boring and predictable, but if it's an Italian, then I'll be eating a pizza. I always have and always will. In fact in my youth I once went out to an Italian restaurant and ordered two of the same pizzas stacked on top of each other. I was told I'd never eat it all and for the next hour or so most of the staff kept coming over to see if I'd either choked, exploded, had a heart attack, or had actually managed to consume it. The phone behind the bar kept ringing all the time, the waiters answering it looking over at me. I swear they were taking bets with the local bookmakers or something.
Did I finish it? Actually no, I left about one triangle, and as much as I wanted to prove everyone wrong, I just couldn't finish it.
I just love pizzas and decided one night that it would be my own personal task to attempt to eat a pizza in every country I'd visit. That would be my one item of luxury to consume; the burgers would assist me in my money-pocketing practise.
So that's Belgium for you. Well it probably isn't Belgium at all, but I'm sorry, it was just too dull for me. Even the other two trips I made there left no significant memories.
Please though, refrain from ignoring my articles thinking every country I describe will revolve around eating pizza's and burgers. They won't, well not too much. It does get better, assuming you like kidnap stories, near plane crashes, mistaken identity, South American soccer violence, Far Eastern sex bars, and potential global thermo-nuclear war! It's all to come.