I'm Olly Pwengl and this is my blog. It's about my experience of being a man and hitting middle age. I have called it Road Map of a Mid-Life Crisis because middle aged men like maps and I hope some people will stumble across the blog while looking for directions to their mother's care home or whatever destination they might have in mind. In which case they will be disappointed because RMOAMLC describes the journey I am on; it should not be used as a guide by anyone else. If at any time you feel inclined to copy something I have done or you think that my experience offers useful insight as to how you should tackle issues in your own life it is likely that you need professional help. Do please read on and leave your comments.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

ROAD MAP OF A MID-LIFE CRISIS (13) Leftovers Thursday evening and I am opening the front door. Moppet has had the day off and I am greeted by the comforting smells of home cooked food. “Hi, I’m home,” I shout as I kick off my shoes. “Good timing,” Moppet replies from the kitchen. “Your dinner will be ready in five minutes.” I dash upstairs to change and wonder what treat lies in store. Back downstairs, I poke my head through the kitchen door looking for clues. The work surfaces are bare and the hob is clear. Moppet spots me and shoos me out. “Go and sit down, it’s a surprise.” I take my place at the table and hear the familiar ping of the microwave. Ah, I have it! Take away. Whilst I am inwardly congratulating myself on my powers of deduction, Moppet approaches with a plate of steaming food. She looks very pleased with herself as if she is about to present me with a meal that will live long in the memory. She places it in front of me. “You not eating?” I ask. “No, I ate earlier,” she says and disappears off back to the kitchen. I look down at dinner and my heart sinks. What confronts me is like walking into a room and finding several acquaintances savagely murdered. Visible within a Gordian knot of tomato sauce smeared tagliatelle are pieces of broccoli, spinach leaves, spring onions and two rather ominous looking lumps of greying flesh. I should make it clear that Moppet is not a bad cook. She does, however, approach issues of food safety with an attitude that is cavalier bordering on the criminally reckless. She laughs at sell by dates and regards best before dates rather like Robert Mugabe regards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our fridge is like food Alcatraz. There are only way two ways out. Either on a plate or by evolving complex microbial mutations which enable the food to escape and live a fulfilling life as a recruitment consultant. There may or may not be intelligent life on other planets but I am convinced that there are flourishing civilisations yet to be discovered living in our salad crisper. The constituent parts of my dinner are like old friends. The broccoli has been hanging around in the bottom of the fridge for some weeks. I don’t recall how it got in there and I do not rule out the possibility that it may just be a very vigorous strain of mould from the cheddar that has been in the door tray since Christmas. The spinach I dimly recall was from a bag of baby spinach bought so long ago that the remnants on my plate must now be thinking about their GCSE options. The spring onions, well lets just say they have long since lost their spring. The grey flesh I realise with a shudder is the remnants of a pack of chicken pieces with a more interesting life story than many of the people I work with. On Friday of last week they emerged having been entombed in the freezer and I first encountered them thawing out on the draining board. They spent the weekend cooling their heels in the fridge before on Sunday evening Moppet announced that she was making a casserole. By Monday morning there was a large white bowl covered in tin foil occupying the fridge and despite the coolness I swear that I could hear the contents bubbling. By Wednesday night I was convinced that the chicken pieces had risen like the undead and were trying to crawl out of the bowl. And now here they are on my plate. I’m not sure whether to eat them or put a stake through their heart. Moppet appears from the kitchen. “Everything alright?” she asks. “Oh yes,” I say with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. I make a convincing show of tucking in but I’m careful only to eat the pasta and to leave untouched the zombie chicken and the Frankenstein vegetables. “Marks out of ten?” asks Moppet. “Eight. Definitely 8 out of ten,” I say smiling. “Good,” says Moppet, “I’m just going upstairs to sort out the washing.” As I hear her footsteps fade on the stairs I make a bolt for it and shovel the environmental health disaster that is my dinner into the bin. I am careful to cover it over with a plastic bag to avoid discovery. Later, as we sit on the sofa, Moppet says, “It’s good that we use up all the leftovers.” “Yes,” I say nodding, “but great as it was I’m still a bit peckish.” “Do you fancy some cheese and biscuits?” asks Moppet. “That would be nice.” “I think there’s some cheddar in the fridge,” says Moppet and I’m not quick enough to stop her getting up.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

ROAD MAP OF A MID-LIFE CRISIS (12) “OSCAR; I AM YOUR FATHER” A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when I was still married and when my children thought I could do no wrong, we made a film; “Star Wars Episode VII The Search for Yoda”. There is no doubting it was an ambitious project for our first feature. I will readily admit that the plot was fairly threadbare, the special effects amateurish and the production values not those of George Lucas, and yet…. I am staring at the VHS cassette now as I go through a box of old stuff, reminders of a life left behind. I have no means of playing the tape but if memory serves the film was an undoubted classic of home cinema; a definite cut above the usual sun drenched, poolside antics and the solemn recording of early years’ birthdays. I remember that in the film I played Obi-Wan Kenobi (the Ewan McGregor Obi-Wan rather than the Alec Guiness version). For some reason that I cannot now recall, my costume consisted of an old beige mac and trousers tucked into blue football socks. Eldest son Emil who was 7 at the time played Vader and Oscar who was 5 played Yoda and any other characters who Vader needed to kill with his light sabre. The film was shot on location in the kitchen, back garden, driveway and, the climactic final scene, in Oscar’s bedroom. As I think back I get a warm glow and then I have an idea. I will get the tape converted to DVD. I will play it to the boys and they will see the wonderful time we had making the film and it will reinforce our bond, bring us closer together. In fact I will post it on You Tube so the whole world can see what a great time we had making the film. We will become a You Tube sensation. It is now some weeks later. I have the converted cassette on DVD and am ready to play it for the first time to Emil and Oscar. At least I would be if Oscar wasn’t so busy killing Nazi zombies on COD and Emil wasn’t sulking because he wants to watch wrestling. This isn’t the warm happy atmosphere I had anticipated for our father son bonding session but I plough on regardless. Brandishing the DVD I say, “Lets watch this,” with a forced joviality which the boys fail to pick up on. Their reaction, if I’m honest, lacks any real enthusiasm. “What is it?” asks Emil, sullenly. “Do you remember years ago when we made that Star Wars film? Eh! Eh! You remember.” Emil nods and begins to look vaguely engaged. Oscar’s eyes roll to the back of his head as if I have asked him to write thank you letters to elderly aunts. I cajole them into sitting down and put the DVD in the player. The title sequence begins to play. My voice can be heard humming the theme music until it trails away theatrically to on screen giggles from Oscar. Then the iconic “Far far away” intro script, stretching to infinity, before the camera switches to focus on the boys sitting at the kitchen table. Gorgeously young and wide eyed they stare at the camera in between frantically drawing primitive Star Wars pictures. The boys sitting either side of me are engrossed by their younger selves. The camera zooms in on their art work to reveal a kaleidoscope of flashing light sabres. Then we move outside to the front garden and a close-up on three Star Wars action figures and it is at this point that I obviously decided to add an ironic post-modern twist to our movie. Instead of just filming the boys as they play with the figures, I start to question them in the manner of a documentary maker. They look at the camera bewildered Then we are back inside. Oscar’s blue duvet cover is draped over the back of 2 dining room chairs to provide an authentic deep space backdrop and a Lego model of the Millennium Falcon is wobbling in mid air suspended on lengths of string. As the camera pans out we see Oscar stood on the table manoeuvring the spacecraft and fielding more of my inane questions. Beside me on the sofa, Emil snorts with laughter and I am pleased that he at least is enjoying the show. “We should put this on You Tube,” I say. “Yes, can we?” asks Emil enthusiastically. “Sure,” I say although in truth I have no idea how to do it. Oscar lets out a sorrowful sigh and pulls his knees up to his chin. The scene shifts to a shot of my feet. I am delivering my lines in my best Obi-Wan voice but suddenly I snap, “I’m not in that shot at all, am I?” My voice is ill tempered and jars with the feel good atmosphere I was hoping to create. The camera pans up to show me glowering at the hapless Emil as he operates the camera. Next the big fight scene in which Vader’s hand (a glove) is chopped off in a light sabre duel before we scour the house looking for Yoda. The climactic final scene occurs in Oscar’s bedroom. He has spent several minutes in make-up to prepare for his starring role. His face has been painted green and he is wearing something that looks suspiciously like the shepherd’s outfit from the school nativity. As a finishing touch he is sporting two enormous ears made out of paper, cut to shape, coloured green and fastened to his head by means of an elastic band. As the camera enters his room Yoda emerges from beneath the bed to cries of “found him!” but instead of hanging around to milk his moment in the spotlight he makes a beeline for the door and disappears from view. It is only at this point I remember that Oscar had been reduced to tears because the elastic band fixing his ears had been too tight. The final credits roll. On one side of me Emil is smiling and asking if we can watch the whole thing again on the other Oscar has his head buried in his knees. I put my arm around him and hold him tight. I sense his shame and the memory of pain that is evoked by watching this film. Inside I feel a pang of dread as I realise that in years to come my boys will look back on their childhood with a totally different perspective from me and I pray they will forgive me for the pain I have caused them.

Saturday, 4 August 2012



It is the Office Sports Day and I am lining up at the start of the veterans’ 3,000 metres race. Anybody who has read my previous posts may be wondering whether they are reading the right blog. This opening sentence comes way out of left field and is the literary equivalent of turning on your TV to find Jeremy Clarkson hosting a late night discussion on gender equality issues. The image of me in shorts and running shoes will jar with the mental picture you have built up of someone more at home in the pub with drink in hand so let me rewind.

It is April when an e-mail drops into my inbox at work. “Wanted! Volunteers for the Compliance team on sports day.” My finger is poised over the delete button when I hear a low throaty chuckle from the desk opposite. It is Chuck Pangodje,  the Carl Lewis of Office Sports Day.  Every year he returns with a clutch of gold medals. “Are you going to enter?” he asks with a wolfish grin.

“Oh no,” I reply shaking my head in a sorrowful way which I hope will subliminally communicate to Chuck that I would dearly love to but  that matters far too painful to mention prevent my participation.

Chuck has many admirable qualities but reading subtle non-verbal communication is not one of them. “You should,” he says, “You would do well in the over 40’s races.”

“Really? Do you think so?”

“You could win a medal.”

As a child you are compelled to run around muddy fields in the cold in the name of physical education and whilst I would finish school races ahead of those of my classmates who suffered from morbid obesity, asthma and chronic lack of co-ordination, I was no athlete. But, as the years pass, memory fades and I find myself watching sport on TV and thinking, I could do that. Chuck is pushing at the open door of my self-delusion and so it is I find myself travelling by train to Sports Day with Chuck seated alongside me.

Back on the starting line; I am looking around at my fellow competitors. Some are built like racing snakes. Slim and muscled; they have all the right kit and complicated watches to monitor their progress. These people have obviously done this type of thing since leaving school and irrationally I feel that they are cheating. I mentally concede that unless I am lapped this is the closest I am going to get to these people. 

The starting pistol sounds and I start running. The true athletes effortlessly leave we lesser beings trailing in their wake. I settle into a kind of rhythm but the act of running seems laboured. As we round the first bend I find myself on the shoulder of a short, Asian man. He is a little overweight with a baseball cap covering his thinning hair. His shorts are knee length and khaki, his socks grey. This man has surely never run in his life. I will overtake him and he will feel deflated as I motor past and disappear into the distance. But whilst my mind is having this thought my body is sending out quite different messages. I’m breathing heavily and I find I do not have another gear.

Then the PA system bursts into life and I can hear the announcer’s tinny voice, “Ladies and Gentleman, if I can draw your attention to the over 40’s 3,000 metres which has just started on the running track. It would be great if you could give all the runners your support but in particular Hanif Butt…”   I look at the chap I am chasing. He is the only vaguely Asian looking runner and so I conclude that he is Hanif. He too has heard the announcement and he puts on a spurt when his name is mentioned leaving me panting as I try desperately to keep up. “… is two years since his heart transplant and this is his first race since the operation”. 

From across the field I hear a ripple of appreciative applause and I die a little inside. I finish the race well ahead of Hanif but he is without doubt the winner.

I wander across to the start line where Chuck’s race is about to start. I see that he is hobbling and wincing. “Problem?” I enquire.

Chuck nods, “I’ve strained my calf muscle warming up.”

I grimace to show I understand. “You can only do your best,” I say, “in the end the only person you are competing against is yourself.” I look off to the middle distance in a John Wayne sort of way to make sure Chuck appreciates the profundity of my words. He stares at me blankly but deep down I think he has a new found respect for me.

Thursday, 15 March 2012



Its Saturday and I'm in the flat waiting for Emil and Oscar. I'm reclining in the folding chair which has now been joined by a sofa. You may well ask yourself why, if I have a sofa, I'm still making use of the folding chair. I will say no more than this; "IKEA".

I could have written a whole blog on the topic but it is not only the sofa that is new, I now have television. This is why I have not posted for two months. Every time I feel inspired to commit to writing some humorous incident in my life that illustrates a universal truth I find there is something unmissible on television; like the episode of Time Team where they unearth a medieaval cheese factory that had stood in the grounds of Sir Roger D'Airylea's castle or an episode of QI on Dave that I think I might not have seen.

Right now I'm watching Field of Dreams which taps right into the whole mid-life thing. The Kevin Costner character is decent and honest and hard working but that doesn't seem to be enoough. He is struggling financially and spiritually. So what does he do? He tears up one of his best fields and spends what little money he has building a floodlit baseball diamond. He follows his dream and because he believes in his dream it becomes a reality. "If you build it they will come." Dead baseball players emerge from the corn and start playing baseball in his backyard. And it is hard not to feel just a little bit emotional at that point because goddammit he deserves it! But the reason we feel emotional is because deep down we recognise for most people, most of the time, it doesn't matter how truly they believe or how hard they work to make their dream a reality, when they build it nobody comes. In fact they don't even call to say they won't be coming so I figure I should feel lucky that at least my phone rings.

It is Oscar. "Hi Dad, we're going to be late."
This is supposed to be my time with the boys. I have cleaned, I have tidied, I have made ready. "Not to worry," I say. "How long do you think you'll be?"
At the other end of the line I can hear Oscar shouting to his mother and I can hear ill humoured muttering in response. "Dad? Mum says we'll be there when we get there."
"I'll see you then."

Two hours later the intercom buzzes and I let the boys in. They have the sullen resentful air of children who have endured boredom of epic proportions. "What do you want to do?" I ask.

Oscar thrusts a large bag towards me. "We've brought the PS3 with us. Can we set it up?"

This is not really the quality father son time I had in mind but I go wiith the flow. "Suren help yourselves." Oscar busies himself plugging in cables.

"How's school been?" I ask.

"OK," grunts Emil.

"Do you want to give me a little more detail?"

"We had sex education," says Emil.

"How was that?"

"Stupid! They spend all this time telling you how to do it then they tell you not to do it. Waste of time if you ask me."

I find it difficult to take issue with the logic. "I suppose they just want to give you information to keep you safe. What kind of stuff did they tell you?"

"The woman who taught us brought in all these condoms and showed us how to use them." I can sense Emil is warming to the topic and even Oscar is surreptitiously listening in.

"Well that's good," I say, for the want of anything better.

"Dad?" enquires Emil. "Why do they make condoms in strawberry flavour?"

I silently damn the woman who has thought to introduce this complication into the lesson. It is the work of a nano second to decide that now is neither the time nor the place to begin an exxposition on the subject of oral sex. "Its in case you run out of chewing gum," I say but I can tell that Emil is not entirely convinced.

Oscar has by this time finished setting up the PS3 and the boys throw themselves onto the sofa, controllers in hand. I gaze at them indulgently and Oscar looks back at me as if he has something he wants to say. "What is it Oscar?" I ask.

"Dad, why is the sofa so hard?"

"Its a long story Oscar."

Tuesday, 3 January 2012




It’s that dead time between Christmas and New Year and I ‘m alone in the flat. With nothing better to do I decide to play one of the 2 war movies I received as Christmas gifts on my PC, but which should I chose. I study the covers. Rather implausibly both claim to tell “the greatest untold story of the Second World War”. The people who do the marketing for war films know that their viewers are the same sad acts who watch the Military History channel, can recite “The World at War” from memory and can tell you the names of Goebel’s children. They know their audience has a voracious appetite for fresh information and so every war film claims to be telling some previously untold story, which is patently rubbish. There can be no period of history that has been as painstakingly picked over, documented and analysed as WWII. Whole TV channels devote around the clock coverage to every conceivable aspect of the conflict. Somewhere my grandmother’s visit to the chiropodist in 1942 is captured and is showing on “Home Movies of World War II: Bunions and Barrage Balloons (In Colour)”. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if the story really hasn’t been told by now it’s more than likely because it’s not worth the telling. Rather like those magazines that promise to reveal 20 things you never knew about Jordan. (That’s Jordan as in Katie Price and not Jordan the country.) You know with a confidence that borders on certainty that these are things that no right thinking person ever needed or wanted to know.

The covers of the two films are both remarkably similar; a battle weary soldier with his back to the viewer gazes towards a horizon over which the unstoppable forces of mechanised warfare are advancing. We know from the image that he has fought against the odds and shown uncommon valour to safeguard the fate of nations. I notice that “Final Sacrifice” a European production is festooned with emblematic wreaths whilst “Pathfinders” a US straight to video affair has no such commendations. There was a time when the fact that a film had won awards would have swayed my choice but now seemingly every low budget European film has won some plaudit or another. On closer inspection the awards engender little confidence. “Official selection Frimley Film Festival” is not the Oscars just as “Shortlisted for Les Ballons D’Or de le Chien at the Ghent Film Festival” is not going to have anyone snatching the film of the shelf. Then I spot it. “Final Sacrifice” claims to have been 7 years in the making. This isn’t just another formulaic war flick this is a labour of love, this is art. I sit down and ready myself to appreciate this classic piece of cinematography.

Out of a sense of deep loyalty to those who follow my blog and because I’m sure Mark Kermode will not be covering this particular release, I will tell you what happened in the 81 minute film it took the Director 7 years to finish so that you don’t have to go through the same experience:

A small band of battle weary German soldiers are fighting a rearguard action in Northern Italy. They are being harassed by local partisans and American air raids which result in one of their number losing a leg. They are reinforced by a group of untried Italian troops led by a charismatic Captain Correlli type who appears to have spent the war in an eat all you want pasta buffet. The Germans and Italians do not get on and come to blows. They continue to be harassed by partisans and air raids until a messenger arrives and tells the officer commanding the German troops that the Americans are advancing, the rest of the German army is retreating but he and his men are to hold their position to the last man. The German officer who is demoralised by all the harassment he and his men have suffered asks for two volunteers and orders the rest of his men to join the retreat. One can sense that things are going to end badly when one of the volunteers is the one legged man who is at this point hobbling around on a crudely made crutch that looks like it was made by Fred Flintstone. The Italians form up and march off without a backward glance and the German officer and his two comrades ready themselves for their act of senseless sacrifice. At this point I prepare myself for scenes of heroic resistance against overwhelming odds as the Germans hurl back vastly superior American forces. Instead I watch as the heroes are speedily overwhelmed and killed inflicting minimal casualties on their attackers.

As the camera focuses on their dead bodies the final credits begin to roll and I am left thinking “how could this possibly have taken 7 years?” There is no narrative arc, no resolution, what were they doing? And then I think of some of the projects I have begun in the past seven years and I mellow. As I put the DVD in its case and earmark it for the charity shop I wonder whether I should put some laurel wreaths on my blog to entice readers. Perhaps not.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011




For the benefit of those who did not read my last blog or for those who did but suffer short term memory loss I will recap. My boss has asked me to deliver a speech at a conference being held in Belgrade. My preparation has been far from ideal culminating in a late night drinking session with some of my fellow delegates. Read on.

Thursday morning in central Belgrade: The hangover from last night’s outing rattles through my head like a Siberian draught blowing in an empty room. Today I will represent the company and speak authoritatively on “Implementing a system of internal controls.” Word of my assured performance will filter back to the office and I will be marked out as a candidate for advancement. At least that was the plan but as I take my seat at the front of the hall the fear joins forces with the after effects of too much alcohol so that I am coated in a fine film of perspiration.

I look out at my audience who are equipped with headphones to allow for simultaneous translation from Serbo-Croat to English and vice-versa. They look like Cybermen. Through the double doors at the side of the hall I spy Eva and Carlos with whom I was drinking last night. They are giggling over cups of the thick black coffee that is being served to delegates. Towards the front of the audience I spot Xavier. He waves to me and I am relieved that he appears not to have taken to heart the jokes I made at his expense in the early hours of this morning.

All too quickly the audience are asked to take their seats and we begin. Our Serbian host gives a short introduction before handing over to the first speaker who is a Japanese Professor of Economics. He talks in English on the subject of “Reducing Regulatory Risk,” a subject that is quite as riveting as it sounds and enlivened only by the speaker’s inability to pronounce the letter “r” which emerges from his lips as “l”. As he draws to a conclusion I feel a rising sense of dread that is only partly eased by the audience’s polite applause. And then I am on.

I give my presentation aware of a nervous tremor in my voice and an unsteadiness in my hand as I turn the pages of my speaking notes. The bored thousand yard stares of the audience only add to my discomfort but suddenly I find myself on the last page and a wave of relief sweeps over me as I finish speaking. There is a slight delay as the translation catches up and then there is a round of applause. I take a sip of water and sit back triumphant. The host turns to me and asks whether I will take questions. I can hardly refuse and so I nod as if it is a matter of no consequence to me one way or the other. The invitation to ask questions meets general indifference until Xavier raises his arm and is invited to put his question.

“Can you tell us please, what is your policy for weasel blouse?” asks Xavier.

The audience look at me expectantly as I flounder. “Sorry can you repeat the question?” I ask.

“Yes. How do you deal with weasel blouse?” asks Xavier deadpan and then I get it. This is some sly Iberian revenge for the sleights suffered last night. Xavier wants to humiliate me in front of this audience. Well I have news for you my cunning Spanish amigo, I do not buckle under pressure. I smile to let Xavier know I am onto his little joke and then I say, “We are very relaxed about blouses for weasels and we also permit waistcoats for ferrets”. I am feeling pleased with the rapier like speed of my riposte when I note the look of horror on the faces of certain members of the audience and the total bewilderment on the faces of others and as I register all of this it suddenly occurs to me with an awful clarity what in fact Xavier was asking. Xavier wanted to know how we treat whistleblowers.

The host intervenes and voices some perfunctory thanks for my presentation and we break for coffee. As I leave the stage nobody wants to catch my eye and with almost indecent haste a taxi is found to take me to the airport. The car is small and of Eastern European origins so that the engine noise is deafening as we travel along the main road to the airport. I feel like I am fleeing the scene of some terrible crime and I welcome the distance I am putting between myself and the spot where doubtless people are shaking their heads in disbelief at my crass stupidity. I pray that Newman does not get to hear of what has happened and I mentally shelve my plans for a leather executive chair.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011




"Hope in reality is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man." So wrote Frederich Nietszche a man who knew a thing or two about life’s disappointments.

I am at my desk when I get a summons to the top floor. As I travel up in the lift I rack my brain trying to think of what I might have done wrong but I needn’t have worried. As I enter his office, Newman cracks what for him counts as a smile. It seems that I have been selected to represent the office at a compliance conference to be held overseas. My mind struggles to compute what impact this will have on my prospects for promotion whilst simultaneously imagining a host of potential far flung, exotic venues. I am to give a presentation on the snappily titled subject, “Implementing a system of internal controls”. Newman spends a lot of time impressing upon me the significant opportunity he is presenting me with. I nod dumbly. By the time he is drawing to a close I am mentally packing the sun tan lotion and choosing the d├ęcor for my new executive office, so it takes a little while for it to sink in when Newman announces that my destination is Belgrade.

I land in Belgrade at midday and take a taxi to the hotel. Goran, my driver, is a valuable source of local information despite his limited English. From him I learn that Serbs love Chelsea football club, that it is difficult doing business in Serbia because of interference from corrupt politicians and that as I have no wedding ring I will have no trouble attracting one of Belgrade's many lovely women. I thank Goran and decline his offer of help on this last matter. He charges me 3000 dinar (roughly £25).

After checking in at the hotel I have four hours to kill. I decide to explore my surroundings and heading out with no particular plan I find myself at Belgrade's fortress which houses the military museum. Having paid roughly 80 pence I learn that Serbia has experienced many rulers and invasions by foreign powers. The Romans were followed by the Celts, the Slavs and the Turks. All of these peoples brought with them large pointy bits of metal to kill the locals. I also get a crash course in Serbia's 20th century history and conclude that the military museum is much better value than Goran.

On the way back to the hotel I am on the lookout for replica football kits to take home for Emile and Oscar. Tucked away on a back street I find a stall that has counterfeit Red Star and Partizan tops. The stall holder who has a lit cigarette surgically fixed to his lips tells me that he visited London for 2 weeks in 1976 and that he loves Chelsea. I buy 2 Red Star tops and he throws in 2 pairs of shorts for good measure.

Back at the hotel I smarten up for the evening reception. I consider adding the finishing touches to my speech but think better of it. I meet with the other delegates in the hotel lobby and we are taken in a convoy of coaches to the Royal Palaces on the outskirts of Belgrade where we receive a guided tour. The palaces were built in the 1920's by King Alexander and following the Royal Families exile in 1941 were used by Yugoslavia's communist leaders. We see the damage caused by NATO bombing in 1999 (an obvious sore point) and I am surprised to learn that the Serb Republic still has a Royal Family. Even more surprisingly His Royal Highness the Crown Prince and his wife are present to meet us. I line up for the group photo with HRH. I am really impressed at the trouble our Serb hosts are taking to make us welcome. There is only one problem. It is now 9 o'clock and there is no sign of food other than the trays of rather uninspiring cocktail snacks circulating around the room.

At 10 o'clock coaches arrive to pick us up and drop us back in the centre of Belgrade. I consider an early night so that I am fresh for my big speech in the morning but I’m persuaded, rather too easily, to join a group who are having a drink in a bar. My companions are a cosmopolitan bunch. Pieter is Dutch, Eva is German and flirts outrageously with Carlos who epitomizes the stereotype of hirsute, Argentine machismo. The final member of the group is Xavier, a Catalan whose English is heavily accented. As the drinks follow one after the other into empty stomachs inhibitions recede and soon we are laughing and joking like old friends.

I would like to be able to say that from our time together we each learn something valuable about the others’ culture and background. Unfortunately, and I’m not proud of this, I find myself, in imitation of Xavier, doing impressions of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. Xavier appears to take this in good part and the others present seem amused but it may well be they are simply embarrassed on Xavier’s behalf. Whatever, we finish up at about 3 am and make our way back to the hotel parting as friends. The finishing touches to the speech will have to wait until the morning. (To be continued..)