It took the people of Yorkshire to show the Tour de France how it was done this year. The race never quite recovered its momentum after leaving them behind to get back to France. The early dramas came partly from stupidity, with Manxman Mark Cavendish out of the race on the first day when he head-barged another rider, hit the ground and couldn’t get up unaided; past winner Alberto Contador decided to pull an energy bar out of his pocket while doing 80KPH downhill – I mean, what could go wrong there, except of course the crash that sent him to hospital? Defending champ Chris Froome crashed out early too, thankfully through no fault of his own, and his absence could have stopped it being a bit of a snooze… except that Italian grand tour contender Vincenzo Nibali took over that job. The 2014 Tour was notable for the resurgence of the French; French riders battled it out to win second and third places, the first Frenchmen to reach the top three since 1984. It would be fantastic to see them reclaim their event.
Naturally, I don’t only watch cycling to see winners wearing various coloured jumpers and holding up bunches of flowers and kissing girls. Every sport features beautiful ways to win… well, not judo, possibly… but there are also beautiful ways to lose, and such moments often leave more of an imprint behind them than even the most spectacular win. Some of these moments can look stage-managed and cheesy, such as leading doper Bjarne Riis ‘honouring’ the previous winner Miguel Indurain when the 1996 race wiggled over to Spain to go through the latter’s home town, in the full expectation that he would be leader; there was also a young Lance Armstrong’s ‘tribute’ to team mate Fabio Casartelli as the Texan pointed to the sky when he won a stage a few days after Casartelli’s death during the 1995 Tour (a feat of formaggio repeated 6 years later by an older Armstrong). There was the moment when deadly same-team rivals Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault crossed the line with their hands not round each other’s throats but clasped, in the 1986 Tour.
My favourite by far of these moments of loss featured Australian Cadel Evans in the 2010 Tour. It’s safe to say that Cadel had been trying for a few years to win a grand tour; he was a clear contender, with placings at 8th, 4th and 2nd, but by the end of the noughties was getting the reputation of being a nearly-man. The general consensus is that he was often edged out of the top place by dopers. Maybe this contributed to his reputation as a bit of a grumpy bastard in the face of questions from the press and fans about his performances. I kind of don’t blame him; he was never able to give any accurate answers that wouldn’t have landed him in hot water with the entire sport.
In the 2010 Tour de France, Cadel was World Champion, but finally got to give the rainbow stripes of the WC jersey a rest to wear the yellow jersey – given to the race leader – on stage 9. If you’re familiar with how bike racing works, you’ll know that the jersey, and the race, isn’t won till the last day. Until then the wearer of the jersey has to use his team to defend him against attacks by other contenders and their teams; they will seek any weakness – a fall, an injury, even to a team member, a loss of tempo or concentration, a sudden change from good weather to bad, a crash in the main group that may hold up anybody behind it – and exploit it. It’s a fraught business. Halfway up the last climb of a five-climb day, the fearsome the Col de la Madeleine, two teams, Saxo Bank and Astana, put pressure on Cadel’s BMC team, and one by one his team mates dropped away, and then so did he, knowing he was going to lose the jersey that day, and what was more, be so behind that he’d never be able to regain the time he’d lost.
Cadel also had a bit of a secret: he’d fractured his elbow two days before. He didn’t mention it, even to his own team, just didn’t want it to become common knowledge. I’m not sure how wise this is, but there are numerous instances of riders carrying on with broken bones, at least for a while. Wise or not, it puts certain pro footballers into perspective as they get a tap on the ankle and roll around in agony.
Cadel had one team mate left. 26 year-old Italian Mauro Santambrogio rode in front of Cadel, sheltered him from the wind as much as he could. At that time he was an established domestique, or team helper, having ridden for several teams. In the footage of stage 9, Santambrogio has a fixed, determined expression, composed – and not the teeth-gritting ‘race face’ of riders going all out. He looks serene, almost angelic.
They knew Cadel had lost, but they rode anyway. At the end of the stage, Cadel put his head on Santambrogio’s shoulder and sobbed. Santambrogio put an arm around his team leader’s shoulder. It’s a sad picture, but a great one all the same. Cadel didn’t ride his customised yellow bike again, and had to revert to his rainbow jersey of World Champion – which is, after all, not so bad – and, broken elbow and all, he stayed in the Tour, and finished a respectable 26th.
Cadel finally won his Tour de France in 2011, and what a great, and well-deserved, win that was. He’s had a few moments since then – even wore the leader’s pink jersey in the 2014 Giro d’Italia for a few days, but really, he stopped being hungry enough to win a grand tour after 2011. He is a fine sportsman and a great man in his personal life, I think, with his support of Tibet, and his comparison of its people to that of Native Australians, plus his donations to charities. I think cycling will be a poorer sport without him when he retires.
Santambrogio’s story hasn’t ended quite so well. He wasn’t with BMC by the time Cadel won his stage, had moved on to the near-enough all-Italian Vini Fantini team. He was making waves in the 2013 Giro d’Italia. He even won a mountaintop stage, flouroescent yellow in his team kit against the equally glaring backdrop of white snow. After the race, which saw the ejection of his team leader Danilo di Luca for doping, Santambrogio failed a test for the performance booster EPO – not the first test he’d failed in his career – and since then he hasn’t got back on a bike as a pro, and, I fear, he never will, and fear too that, even if he does, he’ll never have a finest hour than the day he tried to help Cadel limit his losses in the 2010 Tour de France.
I first went to live in Poland in 1993. I got a teaching job in a private language school in the Silesian town of Gliwice, in the south west of Poland. I’d been at a loose end in London for a few months, having come back from living in Istanbul in August the previous year. I’d been intending to do an MA in Linguistics in Birmingham, but for various reasons the funding had fallen through. My first wife was doing post-grad teacher training in London, and we were living with her parents. Work didn’t look like it was going to happen for me in London, though in fact I didn’t try that hard: working as an EFL teacher in a private language school is okay if you’re abroad somewhere, but doing it in London just seemed ridiculous.
I got an interview with a bloke who ran a language school in Ljubljana, and was accepted for a job, but there was something about him I didn’t like. From his somewhat evasive answers to questions I asked about the working conditions, hours and pay, he seemed like one of those workaholic types who expected the same from me, on little pay, and, in addition, other things he said suggested that he was recruiting for his social life. I may have been wrong about that. I kind of regret not going to Ljubljana: it was a happening place, it seemed, after the ten-day war it fought to become independent from Yugoslavia, and times were surely exciting there. I didn’t get to Ljubljana until 2009. Instead I saw another ad in the Education supplement of the Guardian newspaper for a school in Gliwice. I answered it, had an interview in an empty room in the then empty-all-over Canary Wharf, and decided I’d take the job, and set off for Poland two days later. That was one cool thing about EFL teaching: see an ad on Tuesday, have an interview on Thursday, fly somewhere else on Saturday and, after a day or two to settle in, you’re living a different life by the following Monday.
It started snowing in Gliwice the week I got there in early January. It didn’t stop till April. When people here in London say, “I love the snow,” I don’t reply, as it would be a sort of snotty-sounding, “You weren’t in Gliwice that winter.”
The school was a bit crap, run, as is often the case in EFL, by idiots, but the students were okay, and I mostly managed to put on a good front and get on with it for them. I’m pretty good at getting on with work and pretending I love it, then switching it off and forgetting it for the more important things in life. After a bit of messing about from the people who ran the school, I was finally given a small flat overlooking what turned out, when the snow finally melted, a graveyard. It’s great to have quiet neighbours.
All of us teachers at the school griped about Gliwice at times. We changed the opening lines of Crowded House’s tune Whispers and Moans to Dull, dull grey, the colours of Gliwice… and sang it with some gusto. But in fact that was mean of us. Gliwice is a magical little town, with a mysterious vibe. There is an old rynek, or market place, at its centre, its buildings not exactly graceful, but intriguing all the same. There was a bit of everything in Gliwice: the square and its arches, a gothic-looking post office, sturdy fortress-like churches in black and brown brick, a lively railway station full of the usual shady characters, and babushkas in the ticket offices who were awkward with us if we got the grammar case wrong when buying tickets, especially if we were in a hurry. There were cafés and bars that looked as if they’d been designed by architects who really hated people having any leisure time, but were all the same friendly, and cheap. There were shops selling only red plastic kitchen equipment. There were tall communist-era housing blocks with Wendy houses painted on them, and you made sure to walk equidistant between them, as balconies and other bits were said to fall off them regularly. (A few people assured us that this story was a wind-up, and yet there were worryingly matching chunks of masonry on the ground by some of the blocks.) There are shrines in glass cases that led to the small industrial areas that ring the town, water towers that looked like Byzantine domes, and the brown brick of classic pre-war German Silesian housing, known as familoki or familie lokat, and the forlorn-looking ground of the Piast football club – the season takes a break for the snow – whose fans were certainly, er, dedicated. There is the Kłodnice, a black, polluted river, a market full of Eastern Bloc goods and characters, soot-faced miners with horses and carts selling excess coal, Gypsy women and babies routinely dumped on the town from a lorry on regular days of the week to get out there and make a living, grannies in formal clothes but with moonboots, and middle-aged housewives who insisted on wearing stiletto heels, even in the snow. There is also the tallest wooden structure in the world, the tower at the radio station. This is where the Nazis attempted to start the Second World War in August, 1939: for Gliwice was once Gleiwitz, and was once in Germany, and the Nazis came up with a ridiculous fight-starting ruse, the concoction of a ludicrous story about the Polish army attacking the radio station. It didn’t work, though that didn’t matter to the Nazis, who unfortunately didn’t let such a thing set them back for long.
I missed my wife – of course I did. She came over to spend a couple of weeks with me at Easter. She was on holiday from her course, but had plenty of work to get on with for it when I was at work. Along with the rest of the country, we finally had the long Easter weekend off together.
Poland is, of course, a Catholic country, and Easter is much more important there than it is in secular countries. Lots of businesses close, as people either go to see relatives, or have them staying. What many of them do is visit churches with small baskets of eggs, to have them blessed by priests. It looks slightly comic, seeing all kinds of people, but mainly old women or younger women with children, walk through the street towards the churches with their eggs. Some have a tiny plain basket, others a larger, flasher, beribboned one, maybe with an elaborately-patterned szmata, or cloth, lining it. Some people have their baskets packed with stuff, and we joked that they were bringing their entirely weekly shop to be blessed. This scene was part of the backdrop of Easter in Poland, and we saw a lot of it, partly because that weekend we set off on a journey that took us to lots of smallish, quiet towns whose churches were the main focus.
“Bless my eggs!” we said, did it as Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, made it into an expression from a Carry On film that had never been made – Carry On Easter, Carry On Poland, Carry On Catholics.
We’d got the train across the country to Lublin in the south east, and were staying in its Dom Asystentki, or student hostel, which, it being the Easter hols, was absolutely empty. It was kind of dull and kind of cold, kind of dimly lit, and kind of grim, but we didn’t care. We weren’t there to lie around in the hotel. With Lublin as a base, we ventured to some of the smaller towns in the area. I also achieved a tiny and ridiculous ambition to send postcards to my relatives in Dublin that said, somewhere on them, ‘from Lublin to Dublin’, and wondered, as ever, if the two cities had been twinned, resolving to find out. (I looked it up today, 21 years later: they’re not.)
On Easter Sunday we had a three-hour coach journey along the eastern border to a town called Siemiatycze. Some of my wife’s family had come from there. Most of them had been murdered in the Treblinka death camp during the Second World War, but there were a few traces of them: her great great uncle had built the synagogue there, and the street his doomed descendants had lived in, ulica Szkolna, or School Street, was still there, though we weren’t sure whether their houses were still standing. There were also apparently the remnants of a small Jewish graveyard.
The journey was grindingly slow. Coach journeys could be up to 45 minutes slower than the advertised journey time, depending on whether the driver was a smoker or not; if he was, then there were plenty of stops for indulging in the noxious weed. This was one of those, with people shuffling out into a misty day to inhale either fresh air or tobacco. Most of the people on the bus were visiting relatives for Easter, and had luggage full of pungent salamis, cheese and children – it wasn’t quite steerage class peasants with chickens from a Kusturica film, but seemed surreally close to it at times. Many of the men on the journey were pissed as farts – this was at nine in the morning – starting off the celebrations early, and their breath was alarmingly toxic from a few feet away. And yet, this is not a moan. It was eastern Poland, and full of the old habits of a country that was, for a few years after 1989, divided to all intents and purposes, the east not getting the much talked-about economic trickle-over effect of the new capitalism: we’d chosen to go there, after all. Once we were moving again, the movement began to hypnotise me a little, and maybe I just imagined seeing the towers built on the eastern border, and a giant statue of a soldier, or was it an astronaut, left over from communist times. I didn’t imagine the fumes, the excited high-pitched conversation and pisshead laughter, or the tinny music on the driver’s radio, the people getting on and off at various spots along the way, the goodbyes, promises to be friends for life with other drinking strangers, waves full of affection that was genuine, if only for those drunken holiday moments that had all the possibilities of freedom and celebration in them.
Siemiatycze was a compact little town under a layer of fine mist. The crows made noise in the bare trees above us, their cawing rhythmic and insistent. I always imagine crows actually saying something including an insult that starts with c and ends in t – as if they were berating us for coming all that way to a town in which very few places except the churches were open. The people headed in and out of them with their baskets, and that part of it was all as it had been in Warsaw, Lublin, Częstochowa. We watched them for a while, and made a search for a bar or café – we were hungry by then, having got up at sevenish – but none were open. We had to go back to the decrepit bus station, even more forlorn looking than these places usually are, to grab a coffee and a sandwich, and then resume our quest in the increasingly deserted streets of the town. We found the onetime shul, or synagogue, a building that was solid and functional, rather than elegant, painted yellow and, these days, serving time as a community centre; as with most towns in Poland, there was no Jewish community left to use it as a synagogue. Ulica Szkolna was similarly unremarkable, but we weren’t disappointed, as we hadn’t come to see great architecture or anything of great beauty or intrinsic interest. It was my ex’s commune and connection with a part of her past, that was all, and it was important to us, and to nobody else. We didn’t find the graveyard. Siemiatycze, though small, was bigger than we’d thought, and there was one bus back to Lublin that day – we really had to be on it.
We were back at the bus station early, then. Another drecky kawa turecka – the Polish version of Turkish coffee, which was, er, a work in progress – from the station café, and between us a rock-hard roll with sweaty cheese, the only one left.
My ex went to the loo, and was ages. A man and his two small sons came into the waiting room, and settled down on the bench near me, and near the tiny heater. We caught each other’s eyes, and he gave me a rather down-sounding greeting, let out a big sigh, held his hand palm up as if to say look at this place – what? Huh? Though in fact I was glad of it; it had turned very nippy outside.
He didn’t speak much English, and my Polish was pretty basic. He pointed to my wedding ring, worn on the third finger of my left hand, and then pointed to his own, as if in commiseration. I thought he was being a long-suffering henpecked hubby from Carry On Poland, and was prepared to be uncritical but non-committal. In fact, it was genuine commiseration. He said to me, “Your wife is dead?” I frowned, and said, “She seemed quite chipper a few minutes ago.” Despite the jokey tone, I was a bit puzzled, and quite relieved when I saw her come back into the interior from the loo, swinging its key to hand it back to the babushka in charge of it. I introduced her when she got back, and the man nodded. He too was relieved, and anxious to explain to me that in eastern Poland the wedding ring was worn on the right hand, unless you’d been widowed, in which case you put it, like his, on the left hand. It was my turn to make commiserations, though it pained me and pissed me off that I couldn’t understand how his wife had died – that none of the words he used in explanation were familiar to me, none of the gestures – only that it had been the year before, and that he was taking the children to stay with his sister for the remainder of the Easter break.
The coach back to Lublin was near-enough empty. We chatted and gestured to the man and his two well-behaved boys, about nothing much, until he got off at some roadside in the middle of nowhere. The driver wasn’t a smoker, and the journey passed quickly enough. I forget exactly where we went that Easter Sunday night in Lublin. We were knackered, and not hungry. We went for a drink at a place that chucked us out as it was closing early, and then may have had an early night.
Easter Monday morning we woke early. We were starving by then. We went out in search of breakfast. Not one single place was open. We covered a lot of Lublin in our search. We got it: most places were shut because it was Easter Monday, okay, so we just had to find the places that were open. We’d appreciate our breakfast even more, then. We found nowhere. Even the lowliest burger shack was shut, the tiniest kiosk. We spotted people a long long way up a road making a small queue at a kiosk, and yelled with joy, but then it turned out to be a flower stall. Flower stalls were the only thing open. You couldn’t eat flowers, I was fairly sure, though I was hungry enough to do so by then. All the cafés, all the bars, all the restaurants, all the hotels, shut for the day.
What about the cinema? We’d been there on the Saturday night to see, I think, Of Mice and Men. At least we could buy a bag of crisps or something – but no, shut. We finally went back the grim room we’d decided we weren’t going to spend much time in, and read our books, listened to music from my Walkman through its little speakers, dozed, looked out the window. My ex found a Mars Bar in her bag. She’d bought it the week before, for a train journey, but had forgotten about it. That was what we ate, used a little penknife to slice it. It filled a gap. It wasn’t a three-course meal, nor even a hard sandwich with sweaty cheese – I’d have killed for another of them – nor an Easter egg, but it did its best. We had an early night, got up the next day to begin our trip back to Gliwice, but not before we went out and had the biggest breakfast we’d ever had.
They still believed in angels – notes from a Gothic American tale
There were always rumours about the people in the small towns in the Delaware Bay region. There was a lot of nineteenth century Europe in those people, if you get my drift – cosmopolitan, yes, is one word. America, to my mind, had settled down by the end of the Civil War. You had Americans, at last, free of the British, at last, finding their identity as Americans, at last, had, in the main, a sensible religion, at long last. And then, late nineteenth century, all the upheavals in the Russias, in the
Balkans, the Ottoman Empire, you had all these downtrodden people making new waves into America. They brought darkness, superstition, brought vengeance and vendettas, they brought old religions and mumbo-jumbo, they brought magic, most of it not good.
So the story didn’t start, as people seem to think, with the Russian Revolution, but went way back before that, with men who’d been part of the Polish aristocracy, whose lives had changed when their country disappeared. It started with men who served those crazy Hapsburgs – you know, all that God and King and Kaiser, all that saber-rattling that went to its logical conclusion in the First World War, their ornate pastel uniforms covered in mud and blood.
Among the masses of laborers and steelworkers, lathe-turners, agricultural workers and what have you who lived in these towns and drifted into them to work, there were all these people who shone out because they were different. They worked sorcery with numbers, worked it with the discipline they put on their bodies and minds.
There was a psychic couple, felt the glow from within each other, raised two strangely determined kids, both with the shine of vocation in their eyes. One turned it to sport, became crazy about riding a bike in races, about climbing up mountains on it. He dreamed of racing in Europe one day, and he did just that, though not for long. The other turned her mind to God, gave all her stuff away apart from a scruffy icon showing Saints Barbara and Katarzyna, served God as best she could, barefoot among the poor of the world.
There was a sister the townsfolk wanted to make into a saint, despite the sum of her miracle being that she killed herself in the inept pursuit of good. They griped for years, those townies, done out of their saint. And yet all the while they had one among them, a magic midget, who worked only the purest good, and what did they do but despise her.
They had a vodka priest who once humped crates on the Baltimore waterfront, who then became a gambler, a man unafraid of his weaknesses. A bishop they had, who audienced with the Pope in Romeone time and never had a better day again in his life, unable to rise to any occasion again except with the bitterest cynicism.
There was an artist who was determined to depict life the twisted way he saw it. And again, driven by vengeance and cruelty, he damaged people, killed them with the power of his suggestion and their own superstition.
There was mystery and anarchy, a guy who broke into stores and didn’t steal their goods – oh no. He destroyed them, systematically, used noxious substances and metal filings, rabbit and fish glue, and left them there. No pattern to it, no fixed times, nothing for the police to plot in terms of habit. Went on for years, made itself into a mystery that, in the end, nobody dared talk about. The Devil had come to that town, they believed, had vanished into its bricks and stones, but stayed.
Guys who got shot with a Nagant pistol. This was the favored weapon of the Tsarist police, and was so reliable the Bolsheviks kept it on as a weapon of choice. Lots of Russkies and Poles, Ukrainians, Litvaks, Latvians, Estonians, Czechs, Slovaks in the area, so it figured. The Nagant was a devil to reload, each shell having to be picked out one by one, each new slug having to be squeezed in, so it was no good for combat. But you could seal in all its gases, so it was the one revolver that could be silenced, and that made it into the perfect assassin’s weapon. It was put to deadly use in all those towns in the region, the police pulling its giveaway 7.62 slugs out of shady men’s heads on a regular basis, all through Prohibition and beyond.
They loved their big events, held in their main square, loved their Fourth of July dinner, their Easter Day breakfast, their annual bike race and the balls held by their guilds, like they could only celebrate if they all had their eyes on one another. The kids had their own thing, their masked dance, where nobody knew who was who. And though the devil walked among them, causing death and misery, drunkenness and despair, the telling of sad sack tales and jeremiads, they still believed in angels, the people of that town. Those saps still believed in angels…