288 – Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier Part II

I’ve been a bicycle courier in Copenhagen now for two weeks. I’ve delivered spring rolls, chicken wings, Korean noodles, calzone, spaghetti bolognese, coffee, smoothies, alcohol, fags, sausage rolls, Indian, Turkish and Chinese. Even aspirin.

In the afternoons waiting for my shift to start I watch the Tour de France on TV. Imagining myself climbing up the Tourmalet, or Mont Ventoux, or Alpe D’Huez on the way to the maillot jaune. Then it gets to four o’clock and I put on my grey T-shirt, strap my pink styrofoam box on my back and away I go into the mists of Copenhagen.

Most people rarely do this for long. A summer at most. If that. Not only is it phenomenally dangerous. It’s also incredibly knackering. 40 km in four hours isn’t a lot by cycling standards. Last winter in Auty I cycled 100kms most Sundays in three and a half hours. But I didn’t have a square box on my back full of pizza, booze and energy drinks. Neither were there any traffic lights, people, cars, crossroads, flights of stairs, customers, glass strewn roads, wrong addresses and cancelled orders.

On Friday for example I arrived at an address in Amager to deliver a vegan burger and quinoa salad (Copenhagen for you), only to discover not only were the flats not built yet but neither was the street. In fact, they hadn’t even started building anything. Just a few isolated portacabins on a waste ground where the groundwork contractors ate their lunch.

One came out to see what I wanted (A man on a gold Peugeot bike wearing a pink box on his back would attract attention in any city even Copenhagen), so I asked him if he knew where Luftmarinegade IV was.

He laughed a great booming Danish laugh, his mouth still full of egg and cold ham from lunchtime. He told me it hadn’t been built yet, pointing across to the mirror-flat waste ground stretching out to infinity ahead of us.

I thanked him and called the guy who runs the courier company. There had been a glitch in the system he told me. There was no order.

This has happened twice before. The software they use sometimes generates orders on its own accord and sends them randomly to one of the 30 restaurants we use without any payment being made by anybody.

The previous two times this glitch has happened the addresses have actually existed. This time though the software had sent me to an address that didn’t. Not yet anyhow. Maybe the developers had already let Google know of the impending new street even though it hadn’t been built. (The star marks where Luftmarinegade IV will be one day.)

I’ve now been told that the glitch has been fixed – not that I care that much (I get a free dinner each time it happens). But it made me think how intelligent software is getting when it can make a human being run around the city delivering burgers at will. (Memo to G. Orwell for possible sequel idea to 1984.)

Another amusing incident occurred last Wednesday when I took an order (real this time) for one bottle of Jagermeister, 2 litres of Coke, 3 packs of fags, and eight Pølsehorn (Danish sausage rolls).

This would be a fairly normal order for the time of day which was about 6 o’clock. Pre-going out Jagerbombs for a group of fresh faced blond Danes waiting for their ignition fuel.

Instead when I arrived there were three fresh faced guys called Ahmed, Abbas and Yousef eagerly waiting for me at the top of their stairs. We had a joke about how bad the Danish weather is – I was soaking wet – gave them their grog and grub and away I went.

So why was it amusing? Am I inferring that three guys called Ahmed, Abbas, and Yousef can’t order alcohol? Not in the slightest, I know plenty of Muslims who drink. It wasn’t the alcohol I think they were looking forward to. From the grin they gave me when I handed over the Pølsehorn it seemed that the forbidden pleasure of a pork sausage roll was more of a thrill than the bottle of high strength spirit I’d just given them.

The next day I got another order from the same guys, two packets of aspirin and four milkshakes.

It’s been an interesting few weeks I have to say. But perhaps the funniest event was last Monday in McDonald’s – Yep, I have no soul: I’ll deliver anything from vegan burgers to dirty frankfurters to Maccy D’s any day.

The order was for a Big Mac Meal and two Chicken McNugget Meals. I ordered from a girl who looked barely out of primary school and while waiting witnessed a middle aged Japanese man freak out because they didn’t sell beer. (Memo to Ronald McDonald, USA: sell beer in stores.)

Then the girl gave me three cups telling me to choose my drink pointing to the soft drink taps at the back of the store.

Two things went through my mind. ‘Free Coke for the bike courier!’ Followed by paralysing horror. ‘Oh my God! I don’t know what drinks they want. It’s not on the order!’

In panic I asked the girl what do people normally have with these meals. I didn’t expect her to reel off a selection of fine Burgundies, but I did expect more than a shrug of the shoulders followed by a noncommittal. ‘Coke?’

Luckily I had the customer’s number, so I phoned him.

‘Coke, for me,’ he replied when I asked him. ‘And milk for the kids.’

‘MILK?’ I replied loudly.

The restaurant had been very noisy, so I had been shouting to make myself heard. Only at that precise moment in time the restaurant went silence. All that was to be heard was a loud Englishman wearing a stupid pink box on his back shouting the words: ‘MILK! YOU WANT MILK?’

In end the man was very happy with his Happy Meal. And milk. And that was another day finished.

At the moment I work every day, but I don’t mind in the slightest. I cycle every day, earn a few coins, I see the city and get to learn more about this very strange species called Homo sapiens. Who might one day be overtaken by their own machines. Or Google.

 

287 – Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier

My job in the Indian takeaway lasted precisely 25 minutes. Beating my other record for staying in a job by a full 20. Forty-five minutes being the time I did a job in Exeter cleaning commodes and soiled bed covers for Devon County Council’s geriatric department.

That turned out to be a clerical error on the part of the temping agency I was working for. I was meant to be doing data entry but some admin joker thought that if somebody can do one shit job, they can do another…(Great humour!)

I walked out of that job and didn’t say goodbye. This one though was more mutual. The takeaway owner letting me go 25 minutes into my shift, citing that I was too qualified and would probably leave anyway. Which was true. I had planned to leave. Just not so soon. But after almost half-an-hour of standing by a silent telephone looking at faded photos of India on the wall, I was mightily relieved when he stepped in and fired me.

Sauntering back up Osterbrogade that slices east and west Copenhagen in two, I started thinking about what I would do now, seeing as my only job so far had come to an abrupt end. My plan on coming to Copenhagen was to find a job as quickly as possible. Something interesting, something different. Three weeks down and I was still cessantibus. Which according to the Copenhagen jobcentre is latin for unemployed. (For the record unemployed in Danish is arbejdsløs.)

As fate would have it though, as I turned onto Nordre Frihavnsgade – a super cool street lined with diners, bagel bars, cycle shops, vegan takeaways and yoga rooms – I noticed a cycle courier piling burgers into a large square pink styrofoam box the size of a WW2 field radio.

‘That’s my job,’ I said to myself noting the company.

A week later, I had the job complete with my own pink box which has enough space for a family sized buffet, wine, beer and ice.

I don’t look very happy in the photo but that’s because it was my first shift. I was phenomenally nervous owing to the fact that my knowledge of Copenhagen was limited to the bakery, supermarket and beer shop near where I live. I had a smartphone with Google maps on it, but that turned out to be as useful as a chessboard without any pieces.

Half an hour into my first trip my phone started beeping. ‘Great,’ I thought. ‘Another order!’

Only to discover moments later that it was my battery, which promptly died, sending me into a spasm of pure panic. Without a phone, it was impossible to do the job. I was as good as lost. And would have had more chance finding my destination blind drunk using that good oldfashioned paralytic global positioning system employed by millions of drunks daily in their fight to get home.

With a steaming pizza on my back I rushed home, plugged my phone into my laptop and threw the whole ensemble in my box hoping I had enough power to last me until eight o’clock. Luckily, it did. And the next day I bought a huge 14 megawatt phone recharger powerpack. Just in case.

In the past I imagined bicycle couriering to be a glamourous affair. Whizzing round the city like some modern day beat poet. Crazy, aloof, cool. A rebel for the cause. In reality, it’s nothing of the sort. You’re just another jerk on a bike delivering pizza. Or bagels, or Indian, or Thai, or Korean, or Japanese, or Russian, or Greek, or Turkish. Or any other food type from around the world. Even Danish, believe it or not.

I got through my first week and enjoyed it immensely despite the occasional meltdown from an overload of orders. My legs are like iron, my brain like a walking atlas of Copenhagen and I know every takeaway in town. Except the ones where the signs and street numbers have been obliterated by years of heavy rain and violent winds. Copenhagen in case you haven’t been, has the climate of Newcastle.

Below is yesterday’s delivery route (click to enlarge)

And the day before

It looks like the drunken meanderings of a man after 20 pints desperately trying to get home. And if I’d had this technology when I lived in Warsaw it may have been an accurate representation of a typical Friday night there. Rub out Copenhagen, write in Warsaw and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

I generally work between 3.30pm and 8.30pm and receive my orders via my phone. There’s a line in The Bourne Identity film where the hitman played by Clive Owen tells the hitman played by Matt Damon: ‘We always work alone.’ This sums cycle couriering up for me.

  • We never see who gives the orders.
  • We never see another cycle courier.
  • We only ever see the target when they open the door.
  • There’s no boss breathing down our neck wafting some hideous aftershave or perfume over us.
  • No colleagues discussing my performance in front of the cleaning staff.
  • No gossip.
  • No boring chitchat.
  • No small talk.
  • No speaking.
  • No office parties.
  • No photocopiers.
  • Just me and the road. (And the 3/4 million people who live here. But I can deal with them because they’re normally just a blur in my side vision.)

In short, it’s the perfect job for me…Almost.

The cycle culture in Copenhagen is great from an ecological standpoint – less cars, less pollution, less noise. On the other hand it’s a nightmare for a cycle courier. This might sound odd – almost demented coming from someone who rides bikes around the city all day. But it’s true. Ask any taxi, bus or delivery driver on the planet what would make their job better and they’d reply, almost unanimously, ‘Get rid of all the commuters, day trippers and joy riders!!’

Cycle lanes are a good idea for sure, but like roads, the more you have, the more they are used. To the point when they become clogged. Copenhagen is famous for lots of things. Jazz, opera, fish. It’s also famous for cycle jams. Lots of them.

The key to a successful cycle courier career is speed. The more orders, the more money you make. As a result you’ve got to move fast. Which means avoiding clogged up cycle lanes. Just like you might avoid the M1 or M25 at rush hour. Choose your route. Know the city. Be cool. Don’t get killed.

(to be continued…)

For more Blogley in Copenhagen, see Notes from Copenhagen #1

286 – Notes From Copenhagen: The Takeaway Attendant

I’ve been in Copenhagen two weeks. The city is flat and low rise.  The streets are wide. There’s more bicycles than cars and people seem happy. I haven’t totally adjusted to life here, partly because I’m still expecting to wake up and look out over hills, lakes and forests. But any city where you can swim in the harbour and where cyclists get priority over cars, is certainly worth a few months of my time.

I even brought my vintage 1980 Peugeot PK 10 with me so I could try and look as cool as everyone else. Although my street cred took a hammering on my first morning when a lace from my chunky green Lidl trainers (cool?) got wrapped round my front pedal, upsetting my balance on a bike that’s already three sizes too small for me and sent me crashing to the floor like someone who’d just graduated from a tricycle.

I managed to compose myself, pretending it was some mechanical problem caused by shoddy French engineering, rather than my own incompetence. I then carried on to the city centre and witnessed my first ever cycle-jam.

40 or 50 cycles queuing patiently at a red light which made me wonder whether they’ll have to widen the lanes like they do to motorways to take more traffic. The lights went green and we all moved on, all 100 bikes now, for another 200 metres, until the next traffic lights where we all stopped again for another few minutes.  Nothing is perfect I thought. Even Copenhagen.

As for the Danes themselves. They are everything I expected. I went to the jobcentre on my first day here to ask about employment issues (tax, bank, legal status) and it was as though I was visiting an old friend. The man treating me as though I’d lived here all my life and wasn’t some scrounging Englishman looking for an EU passport.

I found him pleasant.  He smiled and got to the point – Danes don’t do small talk I’m told –  telling me to find a job (with a contract) and come back here and we’ll go from there. I left feeling confident that I might find my dream job here in the Kingdom of Denmark.

That was 10 days ago. Tomorrow I start work in an Indian Takeaway. There is a French phrase: faute de grives, on mange des merles, which I learnt when I first rocked up at the cycling club in Caussade on my vintage Pk 10 when everybody else was sporting 3 grand tour bikes.It roughly translates as beggars can’t be choosers or half a loaf is better than none. (*Literally, if you can’t eat thrush, eat blackbird).

In the interview with the takeaway owner he asked me where I lived. ‘Sankt Jakobs Plads,’ I said.

He was impressed. Then questioned me on why on earth I wanted to work in an Indian Takeaway, waving my CV in his hand like a judge pressing a charge. My CV is a schizophrenic mess of short contract teaching and catering jobs spanning most of my life. And he’s probably right, I’m probably over qualified – just.

I thought of telling him that I’ve never worked in an Indian Takeaway before so I’m just filling in the blanks. Getting more experience. Instead I told him the truth. ‘I’m running out of money in one of the most expensive cities in Europe. I need a job.’

I’m not sure he was entirely convinced, dressed as I was in a checked Pringle shirt, blue cotton trousers and brown brogues. And as I live in one of the most expensive parts of the city (a flat courtesy of a friend), I looked more like I was a home counties lawyer on a day out at the races, than a man looking for a job as a takeaway attendant.

‘How do I know you’re not going to run off after a few weeks and get a job at Berlitz?’ he asked me.

I laughed. ‘I doubt it, they pay less than you.’

He liked that one. ‘Really! Less than me,’ he said laughing.

‘Yeh,’ I replied. ‘Teaching English is notoriously badly paid. Don’t you know. It’s why most teachers end up working in bars and restaurants. Or working in shops. Or dead.’

After becoming serious again, he said I had the job and that I could start Monday. ‘But you must learn the menu over the weekend,’ he said pointing to it. ‘Tuesday’s going to be busy. Gun’s and Roses are playing.’

‘I’m sorry?’ I said, genuinely perplexed. ‘Guns ‘n’ Roses, as in the American rock band?’

‘At the stadium. Just there.’ Pointing to the national stadium which is literally over the road.

‘The original lineup?’ I asked.

Now it was his turn to look confused. Perhaps thinking I was referring to his menu rather than which burnt out rock stars were reuniting because they were skint fresh out of rehab. ‘As in Slash, Duff, Izzy?’ I said.

‘Just learn the menu,’ he said curtly. Clearly not a fan of classic rock.

I said I’d see him Monday and spent last night learning Indian Menu codes while drinking generic Carlsberg lager that’s half the price of The Best Lager in the World. I only got as far as Chicken Madras 228, Lamb Spinach 333 and Fish Tikka 447 because I couldn’t help thinking of Guns and Roses.

I’d seen them (the original lineup) in 1993 at the Milton Keynes Bowl. Driving down from Nottingham and parking my ancient metro in some industrial estate on the outskirts of town (if Milton Keynes is a town). Then walking 5 miles to the venue. Getting there at 11 o’clock in the morning and waiting until 10 at night with nothing to eat or drink (just a few cigarettes) before they came on.

That was 24 years ago and as I tried hard to remember vegetable curry codes, I couldn’t help one of those stupid questions people always ask filtering into my head:

‘Hey Oggers, if I said that the next time you hear Guns ‘n’ Roses play live you’ll be taking orders in an Indian Takeaway in Copenhagen, what would you say?’

‘I’d say, don’t be so fucking stupid. How would that ever happen?’

(to be continued)

284 – Guy de Maupassant and The Trip of Le Horla

I’ve been reading the short stories of Guy De Maupassant, a French writer who died over 120 years ago.

I first came across him in a bookshop in Montauban, a small redbrick town, 50 kms north of Toulouse. I was looking for some Albert Camus as I wanted to start reading novels in French and was counting on the famous Algerian ex-goalkeeper (and novelist) to get me started. There are only so many times you can read The Little Prince.

I asked the proprietor if he had La Peste (after The Outsider, Camus’ most famous book). He said he had: four copies in fact. I took the one with the biggest print and then he asked me if I’d read any Maupassant. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that a village near Cahors?’ I joked (Montpezat being a village a few miles from here). He smiled weakly (idiot Englishman), ‘No, he’s the master of the short story. Very good for learning French,’ he said in English. ‘Because it’s simple.’

He didn’t have anything in stock so I forgot about him until nearly a year later. Christmas Day 2016, Elizabeth gives me my last present of the day. It’s a book. Paperback.

‘Guess what it is?’ she asks. I roll off a few authors. ‘Camus, Hemingway, Auster, Ballard? ‘Nope,’ she replies. ‘Delillo, Steinbeck, Exupery?’ ‘Nope. Open it.’

I open it and The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant falls out of the wrapper and onto my lap like a giant block of Emmental. Tears well up and I say a big thank you! And so begins my interest in Guy de Maupassant.

Born in 1857 in Tourville sur Arques near Dieppe in Normandy, he died in Paris in 1893 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. His most famous story, Boule de Suif (Butterball), tells the story of a coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The inhabitants: a prostitute, a wineseller, two nuns, a factory owner, a count, a politician, and their wives, constitute a fascinating cross section of French society in the late 19th century.

This story is the first one I read and is a perfect introduction to his style. The simplicity of which stems from his first hand knowledge of  the farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, prostitutes, soldiers, civil servants, shopkeepers, landowners, writers and vagabonds he encountered in his  life.

After moving to Paris in 1878 to work as a civil servant he wrote in his spare time. However, after Boule de Suif was published in 1880, Madame Tellier in 1882 and Mademoiselle Fifi in 1883, his reputation was so high that he gave up his job to write full time. By the time he died he’d written over 300 stories, six novels, plus countless collections of poems and other writings on travel and nature.

One of the things you notice when you read his stories is the phenomenal amount of food they eat. In Miss Harriet, a story about a puritanical English Protestant woman living in a rundown auberge in a small village called Benouville on the Normandy coast, they typically lunch on: ‘a ragout of mutton, followed by a rabbit and salad, followed by cherries and cheese.’ All enjoyed with cider. In another story aptly named The Beggar, their ‘simple’ lunch consists of a couple of chickens, a partridge, a side of ham, followed by cheese and a tart. Again washed down with cider. I daresay not everybody enjoyed such lunches in 19th century France. However, this abundance of food is so common in his writing that I suspect this was how rural people ate.

His stories are also at times very tragic and sad. The Blind Man, the story of a man who’s abused and tortured by his own family because he can’t work on the farm, is one of the most crushing stories I’ve ever read.

Conversely his stories can be phenomenally uplifting and amusing. Almost farcical. Stories such as The Duel, The Drunkard and The Relic are silly comic book affairs. Whereas stories like The Necklace and A Piece of String (and Boule de Suif) are highly political.

I enjoy his works because they are simple, finely crafted stories distilling a code of values and ideas into short pieces. Normally with staggeringly abrupt endings. So abrupt at times that I’ve wondered whether some pages have been torn out.

There are over 300 stories and yet my favourite is The Trip of Le Horla, a fascinating trip from Paris to Holland in a hot air balloon. It charts an overnight voyage – yes overnight! – from the centre of Paris to Huyet on the Dutch coast. There’s some awe inspiring description of the trip – a trip I assume he made himself – but it’s also a superb meditation. This is one of my favourite sections as they float across France at 2000 metres:

All memory has disappeared from our minds, all trouble from our thoughts; we have no more regrets, plans nor hopes. We look, we feel, we wildly enjoy this fantastic journey; nothing in the sky but the moon and ourselves! We are a wandering, travelling world, like our sisters, the planets; and this little world carries five men who have left the earth and who have almost forgotten it. We can now see as plainly as in daylight; we look at each other, surprised at this brightness, for we have nothing to look at but ourselves and a few silvery clouds floating below us.

His diversity is astonishing. Tales of varying length and assorted subjects ranging from tragedy to satire to comedy to farce. All different and yet all possessing the author’s vivid set of personal experiences.

Visit http://maupassant.free.fr/ where all his material can be found. Or download the complete short story collection for your Kindle, tablet or phone for free here – 800 pages of a late 19th century French writer. What else could you want for the spring?

Or you can read my own selection of  short stories, The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, here