Partying down in Paceville

No. That’s not me. On the right. With the pole. But I have to admit to being tempted. I’ve been coming to Malta for about two years now, always staying in the same room, in the same hotel, in the same town – St Julian’s. Although it’s just a short stumble from the Cavalieri to Paceville, the hotbed of nightlife in Malta, I’d never quite made it past the corner. Until last week. Mid-week. Wednesday night. And all I can say is I’ve done it and doubt very much that I’ll feel the need to do it again any time soon.

Even on a quiet night mid-week, people were spilling out of bars onto the streets. We tried a few – Plush, Nordic, Havana – and some others whose names didn’t register. Drinks are small and cheap. €7.70 for a G&T, vodka coke, and pint of Carlsberg. A few smokers brazen it out and smoke inside, preferring to pay the fine (if fined) rather than go outside.  The crowd is young – very young – so young that my presence drastically distorts the demographics. Heels are high, skirts are short, and thighs are trembling…especially those thighs that are wrapped around the poled platforms. Thin, fat, short, tall, male, female – it seems like everyone in Paceville is a wannabe pole dancer.

And everyone is friendly. Very friendly. I met two Irish lads from Limerick over here with Lufthansa working as aircraft mechanics. They figure that Maltese girls are seriously intense. Some random chap walked up to me, looked into my eyes and said: ‘I like you, dawg. You’re cool.’ I heard ‘dog’ having been catapulted back in time to that old schoolyard rhyme: a bitch is a dog, a dog is an animal, animal is nature, nature is beautiful, thank you for the compliment.  I questioned it as a chat-up line and he explained, all the while looking at me as if I’d come down in the last shower. What planet was I from? I was beginning to wonder that myself.

Paceville works in shifts – the very young leave by 11pm. The teens by midnight. The twenties by two and then the rest (probably those with the money) stay on. It’s quite well orchestrated really and an interesting study of humanity to see everyone crammed into a few streets. Those in the know walk the gauntlet high-fiving and ‘yeah, bro’ing’ their legions of fans. Even those tourists coming to the end of their stay have an easy familiarity with the locals while those out on their first night have the wide-eyed stares of a deer caught in the headlights.

It was certainly an experience. The company was great. The craic was almost mighty. And I can now safetly cross Paceville off my bucket list.

Szexi vagy nem?

Television is…

While sitting in the reception area of the Dollhouse Dance School recently, contemplating my rather short-lived career as a wannabe pole-dancer, I got to do something I don’t get to do very often: I got to watch Hungarian TV. I first realised I had an obsession with TV when I sat through a marathon screening of back-to-back episodes of MASH on my first visit to New York. I preferred to hang out with Hawkeye and Pierce rather than drop by the Statute of Liberty or visit the Empire State. This obsession has been confirmed in the intervening years to the point that I’ve resolved not to have a TV set in my flat ever again – I’m smart enough to spot an addiction when I see one. I now contain my viewing to hotel rooms and once I’ve lost to the devils inside me and turned the TV on, I find it nigh on impossible to turn off. It doesn’t matter what rubbish I’m watching. One of the few English-language channels in Malta is called True Lives: it offers corny, badly acted TV renderings of true stories staring stars before they were stars. Excruciating to anyone else; a calm, soothing narcotic to me.

… the bland leading the bland

The late New York Times reporter, Murray Schumach, said it nicely: TV is the bland leading the bland. And there isn’t a better word than bland to describe the show Szexi vagy nem that was airing that evening on Viva TV. Some young hopefuls trotted their stuff in front of a panel of three judges tasked with deciding whether these kids were sexy or not. And they were kids: boy faces on gym-manufactured bodies; chins barely  old enough to be shaved sat atop broad, muscle-bound shoulders;  backs bowed, too young to have learned the importance of standing straight and facing the world head on. Their idea of a challenge was to volunteer to be rated on TV by a jury not quite of their peers. Did they know what they were doing, I wondered? The girls sashayed down the catwalk, yet to master the true nonchalance needed to wear high heels with grown-up assurance. Each had cultivated a look that epitomised their personal view of sexiness – a look they had to sell to stay in the game.

 … chewing gum for the eyes

 Architect Frank Llyod Wright called TV ‘chewing gum for the eyes’. That brainless, mindless thing we do without doing, without knowing, without being fully present. We watch, detached, comatosed, as hopes and dreams are shattered by so-called experts appointed to the jury to mete out their judgement. Those deemed not sexy enough were sent back to the audience. The finalists donned their swimsuits and lined up to parade their wares once again. As I sat, gobsmacked, watching this farce play itself out, I found myself wondering what it is about people who crave their 15 minutes of fame with such intensity that they are willing to humiliate themselves in public, before hundreds, or perhaps thousands, or even millions (depending on the TV channel) of viewers? Why has reality TV become such a hit? What is it that makes us take such visceral delight in the highs and lows of other people’s lives? Are we really that pathetic?

The girls, in swimsuits now, turned this way and that, showing the firmness of their youth to its best advantage. What little that was left of their innocence was veiled in make-up, a mask of sultriness that would have been funny had it not been so sad. Marks were added up and the winners chosen. First and second placed went through to the next round; the others sent home with the knowledge that they’d been judged not sexy or just not sexy enough. The door to therapy had already opened; later in life, when they would seek an answer as to why they’d always felt inadequate, their story would start here.

… more interesting than people

 TV is more interesting than people. If it were not, continues Alan Corenk, we would have people standing in the corners of our rooms. But what makes it so interesting? I keep coming back to why. Why do those who take part in these shows crave celebrity status? And why do audiences the world over keep these TV programmes on the air? What can a show list Szexi vagy nem? possibly contribute to society? Perhaps I’m doing the show an injustice. Perhaps the interviews with those who lost out were peppered with insightful wisdom that displayed a maturity beyond their years and that the contestants were actually future leaders of this country. I’ll never know. The TV was on mute. I was just watching the pictures.

I wonder what that says about me?

First published in the Budapest Times 9 September 2011

Over before it began

Two memories collided last week to bring a slight halt to my gallop and give air to a peculiar vulnerability that I share with Stephen Fry.

Many, many years ago, when working with the Bank of Ireland in Dublin, one of the lads in the office made a throwaway comment to the effect that my death would make the headlines. It was simply not in my nature to ‘go gentle into that good night’. Every now and then something happens to remind me of this.

A few years ago, Dublin Bus found its sense of humour and introduced some signage onto night buses that gave tourists cause to think that pole dancing was the new  fetish among Irish women. That, too, stuck in my mind. I have a distinct memory of trying to convince the inimitable Mr Evans to have an ‘open pole’ night at his Club here in Budapest. I’d even gone so far as to suggest Tuesday nights at 10pm. I figured that there had to be some other women my age who harboured fantasies of performing on stage – just once. A bucket list thing.

Sadly, Mr Evans has moved back to the UK so that avenue has closed. However, the lovely MI, remembered hearing of this dream and signed me up for pole-dancing classes here in the city, in the shadow of the Synagogue. No special clothes needed. So, other than the initial cost of the classes, no further financial outlay was required. I was curious, and, dare I say, a little excited, about giving this a go. Apart from anything else, it’s supposed to be great exercise – a blessing in a somewhat unusal disguise. Apparently I would learn techniques that require muscle strength, balance, flexibility, and  strong body coordination. And half of Hollywood’s A list has had poles installed at home.

I turned up. On time. The first shock to my system was the bevvy of beauties waiting in the rather cosy reception dressed in briefer-than-briefs briefs and shorter-than-short shorts. And tanned. All of them. All over. No special clothes….mmmm…  my spaghetti-strapped top and my tracksuit bottoms would render me decidedly overdressed. But I had made it this far. I was attracting some curious side-long glances but put this down to the fact that I wasn’t a native, tanned, twentysomething…

We changed. And after a few self-conscious minutes where I failed miserably to fade into the background and was trying instead to adapt the nonchalance I’d recently come to associate with Stephen Fry [I’ve just finished his latest autobiog], the class began. The room was walled in mirrors. There was no escaping me. For the warm-up exercises, I focused directly on the instructor, watching her every move as my limited Hungarian wasn’t up to following her spoken instructions. So closely did I watch that I’m sure I could have been had for static stalking. But I did ok. Not the most graceful swan on the river by any means, but I held my own and did just fine.

Then came the poles. You could circle them easily with your thumb and index finger. About 4 metres high, each one was secured by four bolts into the floor and another four bolts into the ceiling. One was a little loose. The instructor, all 40kg of her showed us the first series of moves  – she reached up and caught hold of the pole, arm fully extended and then, feet off the floor, swung herself around and around until she landed. All her weight was suspended by her wrist as she floated through the air like a ribbon on a maypole. It was then that I started to flashback to those headlines. I had 25kg on the person closest to me in size and was overwhelmed with a vision of the roof falling in as my pole collapsed under my weight, killing all and sundry. When they cleared the rubble, they would find my hand still attached, and my father would know what I’d been up to.

Now, were I less self-confident, I’d have stayed in the class and tried to muddle through. Instead, I excused myself, and left. I’d lasted twenty minutes; long enough for me to draw a pencilled line through that particular bucket list entry.

In a fashion that is a little like cleaning the flat before the cleaner arrives, I figure I need to lose 20 kg before I next attempt to hang out of a pole – be it on the Night bus to Swords or wherever. So, I did what I’ve been threatening to do for years – I bought some gym shoes. One step at a time.