Regular readers of Halfthoughts will already know I receive letters from Prince Karl Zeis, of the deposed Royal Family of Delfthia. For those you unfamiliar with this tiny but proud nation, it lies midway between Macedonia and Bulgaria, and its finest hour came in 1745 with the victory of Delfthia and their Prussian allies at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg. During the battle, King Augustus IV led the two hundred Delfthian Dragoons in a surprise attack at the rear of the retreating Austrians, catching them completely off guard and allowing them to capture two thousand of the enemy. Some historians claim the Delfthians were supposed to be allies with the Austrians but, arriving late and discovering how badly the Austrians were doing, Augustus IV opted to swap sides. Prince Karl, however, insists this is an unfounded slur against his family’s name. Whatever the historical truth, the exiled Prince Karl wrote to give a much more recent account of events in his homeland…
It is with a heavy heart that I must share the news gleaned from my stealthy return to my motherland, Delfthia. As you appreciate, the current authorities consider me persona non grata; they fear I will lead a popular uprising and take back my crown. I have harboured no such intention, but seeing what they have done to my precious Delfthia, I can now say they were right to fear. Seeing what has become of my beloved Delfthia leaves me saddened and enraged in equal measure. The jackboot of their tyranny has marked my people’s soil for eternity. There is no time to waste. I am left with no choice but to make immediate preparations for a visit to the United Nations, whereupon I will petition the general assembly to restore me to the throne of Delfthia. I do this not for myself but for my people. Even a day’s delay will only leave my poor country even more irredeemably scarred than the day before. I beg of you to share this missive with your readers so they too can find out the horrible truth of what has happened to the beloved land of my birth. The world must hear of what has happened to Delfthia and I shall not rest until they do.
Woe, your name is Delfthia! Accursed tyrants have blighted your green and fertile meadows and darkened your blue and cloudless skies. Greedy wretches have befouled the streets of your magnificent cities and desecrated your pretty villages. Shameless supplicants have given over their lands and freedom to the despots that now disfigure the once beautiful land of Delfthia. Delfthia, how I remember the small boy I once was, running barefoot over your hills and through your valleys…
Prince Karl keeps this up for a couple more paragraphs. I hope he will not mind too much if I summarize by saying the Prince is more than a little upset at what has happened to Delfthia since he left. We will skip to the part where he starts detailing what he discovered on his arrival.
For the final leg of our journey, my valet and I boarded the overnight sleeper train from Vienna. This meant an early rise from our bunks, as the Delfthian immigration officials were scheduled to board the train and check our passports upon reaching the border at 6.20am. I awoke after a fitful night’s sleep, spent turning in my bunk and imagining how Delfthia had changed in the decades since my departure. Even so, I was up bright and early, giving me time to shower, shave and comb my hair before putting on a clean shirt and making myself presentable. As you can imagine, I found it distasteful to travel using an alias, but there was no alternative. However, just imagine my distaste when the immigration officer, looking for all the world like it was he, not me, that had just risen from bed, proceeded to interrogate me about my personage. There was a time when the hospitality of Delfthians was famous from Brussels to Baghdad, yet this slovenly oaf asked me all manner of questions, the relevance of which was beyond me.
“Where are you staying?” “In a hotel – do you think I travel first class and then plan to sleep on the park bench?” “Write down the address.” “Why, will you be contacting them to verify my answer?”
“How much cash do you have on you?” “None.” “Then how do you expect to pay your hotel bills?” “The valet will pay with the cash he carries for me or I will pay with my credit cards.”
“Do you have a communicable disease, social or mental disorder or are you a drug user or addict?” “Yes, I have a profound aversion to nosey parkers and to the insufferably rude. They give me a headache and then I have to take an aspirin.”
“Do I intend to engage in subversive activities leading to the overthrow of the government?”
Well, as it turns out the answer to that question is now ‘yes’, but what kind of nincompoop expects an honest answer from anyone who would contemplate such a thing? You might as well ask Mossad agents if they are traveling under a stolen identity and if the purpose of their visit is to assassinate someone.
This incident on the train was merely an omen of what was to come. After disembarking at Delfthia Central Station, we took a taxi to our hotel. I am sure the taxi driver took us an implausibly circuitous route, all the while proclaiming that he did so to avoid the worst of the congestion. If that were true, I shudder to think what the worst would be like. From the back seat of the taxi, I saw our fair capital’s streets were choked with cars and fumes that backed up and blackened every junction. Even so, I was glad of the detour, as I longed to see what had become of the buildings. What I saw filled me with horror. The pretty facades I remembered from my youth were now covered in advertising hoardings, with giant photographs of David Beckham selling his underpants. International brands of pizzerias and burger joints had taken the place of our cafés and bistros. The corner shops, run by local people that you knew, had disappeared completely.
It was with relief that we finally arrived at our hotel, the Hotel Metropole. This was the establishment that had, for a hundred years, welcomed heads of state from around the world, back in the days when Delfthia was a place that world leaders looked forward to visiting. Sad to relate, standards had slipped even there. The décor still impressed, but much had been lost. A horrid gift shop had taken the place of what I had remembered as the Augustus VI room for gentleman smokers. It sold chocolates from Switzerland and watches from Belgium (or perhaps the other way around, I am too upset to remember clearly) but there were no local goods, like our fine Delfthinian flaxxon hats or the famous mountain pipes played and made in the Delfthinian highlands. Hungry after our journey, I decided to enjoy a bowl of our glapclava, a dish that is never prepared correctly by the few overseas restaurants I have found will serve it. To my amazement, the hotel restaurant now only offered Thai food. Surely if I wanted to go somewhere that offered Thai food, I would holiday in Thailand? Disappointed, I retired to my suite and decided to order room service instead. That menu was equally desultory, offering all manner of club sandwiches and chicken madrases, but not a single Delfthian dish of worth. It was quite enough to cause me to lose my appetite altogether.
I consoled myself that I was out of sorts after the sporadic sleep of the night before, and that a nap would raise my spirits. After my nap, I awoke refreshed. Feeling rejuvenated, I told the valet to have the rest of the day off whilst I ventured out for a walk around the streets of Delfthia. My first stop was at the tourist information office, situated in a hideous concrete bunker directly opposite the Hotel Metropole. I asked about craft shops selling locally-made flaxxon goods. There were none, though the lady behind the counter suggested a superstore with some similar products imported from China. I enquired about the weekend polka dances in the park, but they had long since ended. This weekend there was a jazz festival, which sounded rather jolly. I mentioned that if I wanted the finest in jazz I would have gone to New Orleans or Chicago, but the lady assured me they had flown in some fine musical acts from overseas. Then it transpired the headline entertainment was James Blunt and David Gray, so I naturally gave her a telling-off for misleading me about there being ‘jazz’ music on offer. Depressed, I asked her what other tourists did to enjoy themselves. There was an IMAX cinema, showing the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie from someone called James Cameraman. I shook my head and asked about shopping for Delfthian antiques. The lady said the old market was closed for refurbishment, but that I might be disappointed with the ‘tat’ on sale there anyway. She instead suggested I could enjoy myself at the air-conditioned shopping mall, at which I would find Gucci, Armani and Jimmy Choo stores, and if that was not to my liking, they also had a Topshop, Starbucks, Boots and even a Virgin Megastore. I commented that I did not see how it was possible to have a Virgin Megastore, as all the British Virgin Megastores had been sold off, rebranded or even closed. She responded by sniffing in a very off-hand way and handing me some leaflets that promised reduced entry to an artificial ski dome and a waxworks museum featuring a new dummy of the diminutive Nicolas Sarkozy. Perhaps the waxworks were running short of wax.
Utterly deflated by this dreadful experience, I thought it best to drown my sorrows with a tipple or two or our Delfthinian wormwood liquor, or failing that, a little absinthe. Imagine how dejected I was when the only bar I could find was an Irish-themed pub, covered in shamrock wallpaper and with a big TV screen showing English Premiership football. Their beverages included no wormwood liquor nor absinthe, so I mulled a choice between Guinness, Fosters or Budweiser. I settled for a Guinness and, reconciling myself to my torpid travel experience, I found comfort in the thought that the Irish say their Guinness does not travel well either.
Dear reader, it seems you can never go home. I tried, but it was no longer where I once left it. In the place it should have been, I found myself surrounded by the tyranny of the familiar. Those rogues in the Delfthian government had sold out our national heritage for a Hallmark gift shop, a Dunkin Donuts and a Gordon Ramsey restaurant. These are all very fine establishments, in their own way, but not so fine that I never want to be without them.
Prince Karl Zeis of the Royal House of Delfthia