Lack of food, lack of coffee, lack of contact with the Outside World: all have made me prone to nostalgia, fierce neuralgia and the shakes. I went outside just now for the first time in ages: it's cold, humid and slippery out there. Spots of rain, ragged clouds, and a sort of generalised yuletide resentment hanging in the air. Gosh, how I'd missed it. I walked into Debenhams department store. It utterly bewildered me. That any of these shiny things were needed—by anyone—seemed ridiculous. Asceticism through illness—now there's a rubbish route to enlightenment.
It reminded me (see? nostalgia!) of walking into Tescos, Carmarthen, a few years ago, with a bunch of workmates and a young visitor to The Farm, a Kirgiz falconer called Anarbek. Who was baffled almost to the point of distress by this brightly-lit food temple. One of those moments of cultural dislocation that make your teeth itch. (though Tescos, Carmarthen, is brain-scrambling for all sorts of reasons apart from consumer culture shock).
Anarbek had turned up in Carmarthen a few days earlier with a bag of small, sweet Kirgiz apples, a bag of fresh Kirgiz walnuts, and a couple of horsemeat sausages. He was fantastically cool. This was a guy who trained and flew a female goshawk he'd caught with his bare hands in his school classroom (she'd crashed through a window trying to catch pigeons she'd seen reflected in the glass). At least I think that was the story, because Anarbek spoke no English, only Russian and Kirgiz. But amongst falconers, as among fighter jocks, pretty much any important conversation can be communicated with hands (representing hawk and prey, rather than aircraft) and latin names of birds of prey. He shared a damp, ancient caravan with my friend Erin. A damp caravan sounds a terrible fate for a valued guest, but the alternative to the caravan was the house itself—where I lived—a pebble-dashed building so run-down that a bead-curtain of water decorated the stairwell every time it rained, rats lived under the stairs, and our boss asked us not to take hawks home with us because of the risk of them contracting respiratory diseases. The only heating was from a coal-stove that occasionally malfunctioned and burned the wallpaper off the wall. Still, it was quite fun, at times, living the life of a fourteenth-century serf. What was I saying about culture shock?
In the evenings Anarbek practised kickboxing in the barn (he was a champion back home) rode the hell out of the boss' wife's stroppy arabian mare, emptied the lake of trout (quietly, at night, with worms), and amplified his already terrifying coolness by munching raw red habanero chilis with every meal. We tried, and failed, to emulate him.
Erin has fond memories of his time as Anarbek's caravan-mate. Every morning he'd be woken with cigarette smoke and Anarbek proffering a can of beer to him. "Piva, American bandido?" he'd enquire, before bursting into laughter.
He was an absolute star. God knows what he's doing now. I hope he's alive: Anarbek was resolutely and very vocally against falcon-smuggling. A laudable stance, and one that puts you in personal danger. Praying for him.