Friday, 9 May 2008
Social Networking. An online phenomenon I despised with relish and poked fun at with a side order of chips. A digital bastard house of misfits and weirdos, a place I felt alien towards and unwelcome in. When I joined Facebook I could feel myself climbing into the trap. Vast amounts of time spent tagging photos, joining groups and reacquainting old friends was a sure sign this was only the beginning. But that was okay. I was just keeping in contact with old friends and forgotten chums… So why not just email the people I speak to regularly and leave the rest to flitter away like old photos in a cyclone of zeitgeist? I contemplate this question and scribble in my notebook as the pospieszny train travels me direct to Wrocław from Bochnia. The journey is five and a half hours and I will have to make the same trip back again tomorrow morning. Why am I doing this again?
It all started with a pop-up. A greyed border on a music orientated SN website advertising a concert three hundred and ten kilometres away from where I live. I always make an effort to take my students recommendations and interests seriously. I only have a select clientele of one-to-ones and I like to keep up to speed with their music and film tastes. When one of the select few referenced LastFM as an online cultural adaptation of music based bar talk, I decided to give it a whirl. Thousands of strangers rampaging audio recommendations I had never heard of and the option to catalogue music preferences. I became excited and opened an account. Misfit Weirdo. This was me being engulfed in a new environment. An environment I had recently jeered at as being little more than a database of wasted efforts. Before long I was checking, updating and monitoring my profile with the same enthusiasm I had for my Facebook page. Misfit weirdo.
It was through this site I found that one of my most coveted bands is playing a one off gig over the other side of the country. I contemplated. I decided that I would only go if there was a way I could stay in Wrocław for free. For the last six months I have been finishing my novel and, being as though it is my first, I received no advance for it. The grosz are few and far between so I needed to make sure the venture would be minimal in expense. When travelling Poland for the Talking TEFL project, I signed up to another SN site called couchsurfing.com. I didn’t take advantage of it on the nationwide journey but my account remained active. Although couchsurfing.com harbours the same principles as the other ‘communities’ I have tumbled into, it is probably the most useful. The site details a catalogue of people all over the world, from Antarctica to Kazakhstan, who have free accommodation available to whoever wants it. I met Agnieszka through this site and she is going to meet me at the station when I arrive in five hours time.
My legs ache and my mouth dries as my journey continues through Katowice and onward to Opole. I read Naked Lunch and The Kite Runner while listening to Stereolab on my headphones. I eat rice cakes with the butch nana sitting opposite me. The heat pours through the windows and I think about how I have spent the first sunny day in a long while, cramped on a train with body throb. I arrive in Wrocław at half past four and feel faint as I walk through the station to the concourse. My stomach growls in a wicked echo and I prod my gut like a pin cushion. Angnieszka said she would meet me here at half past but there is no sign of her. She called me up a couple of days ago and told me that she would leave work early to meet. She said I would recognize her from the profile photograph and that we could hit the venue straight away to pick up my ticket for the concert.
I loiter under the train departure info and wonder who will recognise who first. I turn around and come face to face with a tall ginger girl, she has light blue powder stroked lightly over her eyelids and a toothy smile. “Well good afternoon Daniel” she says in plenty rehearsed English. “Good afternoon” I reply, almost trembling for lack of sugar. I wonder about the protocol for such situations and she asks me what I would like to do. People push past on their way to the platforms and I hook my shoulder bag over my head. We leave the station and walk down a main road. I want to ask her about couchsurfing and why she allows total strangers into her home. My questions seem terribly inappropriate and I bite my tongue. A fat lady barges in front of us and bellows across the street at an invisible boy and Agnieszka tells me about how Polish people have begun to alter their personalities to suite the American demographic. I am confused and my gurgling stomach feels like it is dissolving. The venue is called Firlej. I step inside. There are two bearded men behind the desk. I ask them for a ticket to this evenings performance and I notice that this is the first time I have spoken Polish in front of my host. She crumples her face. Fort five zlotys for a ticket and a free poster. We leave Firlej and walk towards the Rynek while discussing Serge Gainsbourg. Agnieszka is most pleasant, her ginger curls dance in the gentle breeze and her index finger points at a grinning couple. We walk over to them and they speak to us about dinner. They tell us that a Mexican restaurant called Havana has reasonable prices and excellent vegetarian tortillas. I walk with her. “They are a lovely pair” she says, “he is German and she is Polish but they speak in English all the time”. I nod and look over my shoulder.
The restaurant is smoky and dark. We take a seat at a crowded table with one leg shorter than the other three. It rocks slightly when I lean on my elbow. This seems to be the right time to ask about couchsurfing but my voice jumps out all paranoid and jittery. She looks relaxed and subtle as she flicks her ginger hair with long bony fingers. She tells me that I am the third guest she has hosted (the waiter takes our order) and that she is very pleased I came. She doesn’t get much time for holidays so she lures new being and conversation with promises of free accommodation. This must make her feel in motion. I smile and thank the waiter as he brings over two cold pints of Okocim. My head throbs as I slurp and we discuss the infinite possibilities of fraudulent absurdity that could take place in our current situation. I could be anybody. I could be nobody at all. Does she really want to bring me into her home? Misfit Weirdo.
After a slice of cherry pie and a fistful of Ibuprofen, she escorts me back to the venue one last time. She says that she doesn’t like walking and I go inside on my own. The lady checking tickets at the door greets me with a whisper. “Czesc”. “Hej” I blurt back all clumsy. I order a beer and stuff my jumper into my bag, there is far too much in there what with all the books, bottles of water and empty cigarette packets. I must look suspicious. There is a loud mechanical whir coming from behind a closed door in the hallway. I light a cigarette, take a couple of drags and put it out while staring at the ticket checker lady. The whirring gets louder and I open the door.
There are no more than thirty people in the audience, they are swaying slowly, transfixed on the stage. Two young men rock back and forth with guitars in their hands. There are transistors, mixers, synths and distortion pedals all over the place and everything is deafening. I can feel my ribs rattle around to the sound and I take my position next to the stage. Underneath the overheads. I take photographs of the quiffed guitarist as he swings to the booming grooves. His strumming the source of the stampeding boulder like percussionless drone. Each flabby groan ripples through the room like a wave. I surf on the sounds and dwell in the crunching blasts that drip off the walls as they ricochet. The band is called Growing. They ooze cool and define intriguing. Their set finishes after twenty minutes and I get another beer, my ears ringing and I feel like a plaster cast of myself before I entered the room.
I have been a fan of Boris since 2002. The first thing I heard from their back catalogue was an album called AbsoluteGo. The record consists of two tracks and lasts for over seventy minutes. Each track is a brutal recording of distortion, guitar fuzz and feedback. It sent me wild and became the centrepiece of my university dissertation, for which I received top marks. I got in touch with the bands Japanese record label Diwphalanx, bought albums in bulk and sold them on ebay as recommendations to people who had never heard of them. Boris released Pink in 2005, a glitzy bashing of rock songs for which they received a great deal of critical acclaim. The band also has a reputation for experimental collaborations, thunderous live shows and general inconsistency. Perhaps not the safest band to bet twelve hours of train on.
So perhaps this is more for the experience, I guess while swigging on my beer bottle. When has it ever been possible in the past to sign up to a networking site, take up a cyber peer recommended concert and arrange to stay at a complete strangers house for free? Boris takes to the stage. I am on the right and have a perfect view of Wata, the dreamy shoegazer guitarist, as she plucks her strings. Boris birth their set; slow, bursting and loud. I can feel the noise in front of me like a block I have chisel at in order to move. They play for just over an hour. A barrack of mystical buzz.
I leave the venue in a melt. A warm evening breeze wraps around my distorted hearing as I adjust myself to the real world. If ears could squint.
She meets me at the top of the street by the crossroads. I pick her out of the crowd, bobbing up and down through the windows of a tram. She speaks to me but I can hardly hear anything at all. Like a rolling cliché, we stagger, strangers in the street light. A rickety bus drops us at her flat across town and we are at her place by half past midnight. I drink lemon juice in the kitchen. My bed is a fold out sofa in the spare room and I share my space with a PC and a library of eighties horror DVDs. She says she will wake me at five so that I am on my way back home bright and early.
The sky is naked and a morning chill pinches my cheeks. She tells me she had fun and that I am welcome to stay anytime. Utterly casual. I thank her for the hospitality and my bus pulls up to the pavement. I am at the station by six. My train is guarding the platform warily as I board a back carriage. In six hours I will be home.