Worst. Hangover. Ever.
How did I get here? It’s a question I sometimes ask myself, perhaps most commonly when contemplating my career choice. How did I become what my dad would call “a guy who does stuff with computers”?
I never had any ambitions to be a programmer. I’m not sure the internet even existed when the careers officer came to my school so I certainly wouldn't have explained how I'd always wanted to create dynamic and engaging, yet simple and beautiful UIs during my chat with her.
I got here because one step led to another. So what was the first step? I can pinpoint it to the decision I made to take a year out during my undergraduate studies. A company affiliated with DTU, who were affiliated with my university, wanted an intern and apparently I was suitable.
DTU. That’s the Danish Technical University. In Denmark. Quite why I decided to go there requires more research into my memories than is necessary for this article but the experience I gained working in the engineering department for one of the contractors building the Øresund Bridge, was far-reaching to say the least, and set me on a career path in computer programming.
The story of the worst hangover I ever had begins on the last night I spent in Copenhagen. To summarise the preceding year, I met, made friends and partied with a lot of fine people from all over Europe. And a few from Canada. I discovered that the craziest people in the world are the Finns, the smartest are the Danes and the outright coolest are the Canadians.
It turned out that these cool, smart, crazy people were sorry to see me go and on my final night I was thrown a leaving party in DTU's legendary Kælder Bar.
During the year I lived in Copenhagen, I must have spent at least one night per week in the Kælder Bar. Coming from the UK at a time when the bell for last orders still rang out at 22:50, going home any time in the small hours was a novelty that never wore off. And it was less than a 10 minute walk from my accommodation. I had it good. Except when I had to work the next morning.
Let's sidestep for a minute to talk about J-Dag, the magical day when Tuborg's classic Julebryg (Christmas beer) is released, 4 or 5 weeks before Christmas. This is a serious event in Denmark, more so than Christmas Day itself. Traditionally you had to wait until midnight but for some reason the Kælder Bar was allowed to start serving it at eleven, an hour earlier than anywhere else in Denmark. I’d never seen the place so packed. People were jammed up at the bar hours in advance. Luckily we had Grant. I’m not sure we’d have tasted the beer until long after midnight if it wasn’t for him.
Grant is one of those cool Canadians I mentioned. Beer lover, music lover and all round good guy to know, his full name, in fact, being Grant Goodes. One thing about Grant is he always makes sure his friends are taken care of. Another is he’s quite an imposing presence. These two attributes ensured we all had our Christmas beers for a group “Skåååååålllll......” no later than a minute after 11.
An epic night ensued which spilled out across the campus. I still puzzle over a J-Dag photo of me wearing clothes I didn’t own. At what point did I change? Why? Whose clothes were they? Questions that were never answered.
I’m setting the scene here, because my leaving party was no more noteworthy than most other nights spent in the Kælder Bar, except for some sad goodbyes and the fact that I drank far more than usual. A continuous carousel of drinks was plonked in front of me all night. It even got to the point where I thought I might throw up.
No matter how overindulgent a night out became, this side effect practically never happened to me. I once produced a picturesque reaction to some bad oysters and I’ve never gone near those miniature capsules of evil since. It baffles me that after suffering an alcohol induced spewing spree, anyone would want to repeat the experience a week later. But people do.
Anyway, on this occasion I found myself kissing the porcelain, or at least thinking I was going to. If you’ve been in such a situation, you'd probably agree that it’s preferable to get through it unnoticed and undisturbed. That didn’t happen. Someone came into the gents shouting for me.
“JOHN. JOHN! ARE YOU IN HERE?”
Oh jeez, it’s Martin. What does he want that’s so urgent? Well, he doesn’t know I’m here. Stay quiet until he goes.
Just keep quiet.
“Hey John, are you ok?”
Half of Martin’s head is poking through the gap between the floor and door of the cubicle I’m in.
“Yeah, I think so, but...wtf man?”
“Oh sorry but I had to find you. I gotta go now to catch the last train unless I can crash at your place?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Martin is one of those smart Danes I mentioned. And it was a good thing he slept on my floor because the next memory to relate is of him waking me up to inform me that someone was knocking on the door.
I was immediately acquainted with the carpenter working inside my head (the Danish word for hangover is poetically accurate) and abruptly became aware of the horrific day that lay ahead of me. Travelling from one country to another with Satan’s personal punishment mashed into my skull. And every other bone I could count.
Coming with me was something close to 60kg of luggage. I couldn’t tell you why I was leaving Denmark with triple the possessions I’d arrived with but I must have deemed them all valuable enough to justify a hefty excess baggage fee. I’d called the airline to get an idea of how much it would cost to make sure I kept back enough kroner to cover it.
The first part of my journey should have been relatively easy. A colleague had offered to take me to the airport. He was now outside and had woken Martin, who’d had to give me a rough shake to achieve the same result. But hang on. Why was Martin waking me now and not my alarm clock half an hour earlier?
In a plot twist lifted directly from Home Alone, there’d been a power cut sometime during the night. I’m not kidding. My clock didn’t know what time it was. The day was off to a great start. I hastily got up, said goodbye to Martin and braced myself.
Most memories of that day have dissolved into one large, dark grey, sludgy puddle of thudding pain and misery but enough details stand out to ensure the ordeal will never be completely forgotten.
After I’d checked in for my flight, I took the first opportunity of the morning to sit down and try to pull myself together enough to figure out... well just to figure out what was going on right now. I think I started to hallucinate. Giant bottles of vodka were walking around me. Life size bottles of vodka, with arms, legs and feet, were everywhere.
If you subscribe to Aldous Huxley’s theory in The Doors Of Perception, you believe that hallucinations are a result of the brain’s filters breaking down. Strange things are happening all around us, all the time but, knowing we can’t handle them, our considerate brains block them out. Sometimes though, it’s just too beat up to bother so it allows some of the forbidden information through. You see it, you don’t understand it and you think you’re hallucinating.
So while it’s possible there was a Smirnoff promotion going on that day and people wearing inflated bottle costumes were handing out flyers by the duty free shops, it’s also possible that giant bottles of vodka are always there and we simply don’t notice them in normal circumstances.*
After landing at Stansted, I faced the most challenging part of the mission. Getting myself across London, from Liverpool Street to Kings Cross and onto a train to Newcastle. Nowadays I would just lay back in the comfort of a taxi and marvel at the tenacity and resourcefulness of my student self. Back in our story’s timeline, student me was at least a decade away from such luxuries and had but one choice: The London Underground. With 60kg of luggage.
My demonic hangover had not improved. I did not feel any better for having negotiated two airports. I would gladly have allowed myself to morph into Jeff Goldblum’s Fly given the option to teleport.
I’d spent the last of my physical strength heaving my stuff from the baggage carousel at Stansted and was now propelling myself purely on will power. A bed was waiting at the end of this horror show and I was now in the same country as that tangible trophy. Getting there, one step at a time. But as I staggered through the last tunnel and saw the steps leading up to the main concourse at Kings Cross, I realised I wasn’t going to make it. I dropped my stuff, slid exhaustedly down the wall and just sat there for a few minutes. If I’d laid a hat down next to me, I may have collected a few coins.
I eventually got on a train where I assume I passed out.
Usually, upon arriving at my station, I’d be greeted by whichever parent had taken on taxi duties but either they’d yet to arrive or I’d missed them. Any amount of time could have passed before I became aware of my mum standing there, looking down at me. She probably saw me stumble off the train and head straight for the nearest bench. I don’t know what I said when I first saw her but one simple question would have been appropriate: How did I get here?
Next morning, I was having breakfast, well on the road to recovery but still not quite boasting daisy freshness, when my mum said: “You must have been in some state last night. You were speaking Danish to me.”
The day’s hungover rigours had pretty much torpedoed me. By the end of it, not only was I unaware of which country I was in, I couldn't even recognise my mum as someone I should speak English with.
I wandered into the living room where my little brother was watching CD:UK, the music show hosted by Geordie stalwarts Ant & Dec. My head was still a bit foggy when I sat down to be confronted by a bunch of brightly coloured characters, wearing mismatched outfits and comical haircuts, zigazig ahh-ring with unchoreographed enthusiasm around the TV. I thought I might be hallucinating again. This is how the stoners must feel when they watch the Teletubbies.
When they’d finished I asked my brother, what the hell have I just seen?
“That’s The Spice Girls,” he said. “They’re number 1 at the moment.”
The Spice Girls have since cemented themselves into music history and Wannabe still pops up on a playlist from time to time. Whenever I hear that intro, I’m instantly reminded of the worst hangover I ever had.
* Although never with anything close to the same severity, I'd find myself sitting in Copenhagen Airport nursing a hangover on several subsequent occasions, heading home from Roskilde Festival. I always kept an eye out but never saw the giant vodka people again.