Battling demogorgons in the struggle for legitimacy: The outsiders of Strangers Things

So I just finished Stranger Things. I know I’m a bit late on this, but back in July I was out and about in Eastern and Central Europe hearing about other strange things. Anyhow, the show is great. I’m a big fan of its soundscape, which sets classic 80s tracks on a synth-heavy backdrop alongside a genius ability to make everyday objects sound genuinely uncanny. If you haven’t already seen it, check it out (and don’t read this post as there will certainly be some spoilers).

Looking Upside Down from the outside

What’s Stranger Things about then? To me, it’s an excellent exposition on what it means to struggle for a legitimate sense of self as an outsider. Naturally, what I’ve just written sounds like some pretentious pseudo-nonsense, but I do have a humanities degree so I’m allowed to do this sort of thing.

Let me explain a little bit. Every non-FBI character who comes into contact with Eleven, the Upside Down and/or the demogorgon flower-face monster thing are all outsiders. Joyce and Jonathan are perhaps the clearest outsiders, in the way that they are immediately shunned by most townsfolk and live in an isolated house literally outside of the rest of Hawkins. Then we’ve got Lucas, Mike, Dustin and Will, who spend their free-time playing Dungeons & Dragons and getting bullied. Again, Jim is an outsider, initially in the sense that he’s playing that lone-wolf troubled masculine cop character, but also as he’s not actually from Hawkins. Although Nancy is dating popular high-school charmer Steve, her academic conscientiousness positions her as an outsider, as does her friendship with the geeky-looking Barbara. And finally, we have Eleven, who doesn’t need much explaining. It’s no surprise that all of these characters form the main core of the cast.

Importantly, each of these characters experiences loss through the course of the series. This mostly revolves around loss of family or friends. In Jim’s case, the death of his daughter occurs prior to the events of the show, but he is still affected by the memory of this loss, especially in relation to Joyce’s loss of Will. This gives us a set-up whereby every character is figuratively battling the inner demons that result from their loss-related mental turmoil. Of course, for every outsider, this figurative battle ultimately becomes a literal battle with the demogorgon and secretive FBI state operatives. Consequently, the experience of loss further consolidates their outsider status. When Mike begins to understand more about the existence of the monster in the Upside Down, he is reluctant to explain this to his parents, for fear of their disbelief. Likewise, Joyce’s early murmerings about speaking with Will through electrical lights and seeing the monster break through are initially dismissed as madness by Jonathan. And Jim’s paranoia around bugs and coroners arouses the interest of his colleagues, but as a sign of his descent into alcoholicism.

Indeed, the FBI themselves occassionally use this pre-existing outsider status as a tool of repression. Eleven is a ‘freak’ who has to return to Papa, because nobody outside of the institution will ever believe her or love her. Meanwhile, Jim is threatened with a murder set up to look like an overdose, playing up the expectation of others that he is substance dependent. Other characters’ outsider statuses are also used against them by non-government figures. The boys experience constant bullying arising from their apparent nerdiness. Elsewhere, Nancy is slut-shamed, ostensibly as a nasty act from a jealous lover, but also as a result of Steve’s friends’ jealousy towards her intelligence.

As such, each and every one of the outsiders struggles to be taken seriously and to integrate into their immediate society. With some exceptions (notably, heart-throb teacher Mr Clarke), all of these characters develop their most meaningful relationships with each other. This is the essence of their identity struggle. Although they are accepted among themselves, the outsiders all lack legitimacy in the eyes of those that society considers legitimate. This is also the tragically paradoxical beauty of Stranger Things. In a true team effort, the end of the series sees these characters definitively destroy their demon(s) through a combination of a crafty beartrap, Upside Down meandering and a slingshot right in the kisser. However, this victory comes at a price. The sole condition for saving Will is that none of these characters are permitted to talk about the strange circumstances around his disappearance. State repression is boss and the outsider remains firmly outside.

Pessimistic things

So, while my understanding of the first season of Stranger Things is pretty depressing, it rings fairly true. If you’ve ever occupied the position of an outsider, then you’ll know that the struggle for a legitimate identity can’t necessarily be overcome, because you are still an outsider. There is also a rich Western cultural tradition of outsiders, for whom existence is similarly bleak. Mersault from Camus’ The Outsider sticks out for me and there are countless other literary figures who take up this position. The same characters also crop up in cinema. Take the protagonist Glass from The Revenant, who is an outsider both on account of his wife’s ethnicity and his disabling acquired injuries. Glass overcomes a famously physical struggle with his body and terrain, which mirrors his struggle for a place among the other trappers. But how does this pan out for him in the end?

On the other hand…

Having said all of that, Stranger Things might just be a television series where some mad shit happens to some nerdy kids in small-town America and they come across government conspiracies, demogorgons and psychokinesis. Either way, it’s cool as fuck and worth a watch.

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The sweet melancholia of cigarettes and shipyards in Gdańsk

After my time in Ukraine, I wasn’t quite sure how Poland would be. Surely I’d already reached the heights of social experience when I heard about Vladimir Kalashnikov’s sex tourism and toe amputations? Just to make sure things were suitably spiced up, I started out my Polish trip by standing in the wrong queue at Gdańsk airport border control. On the one hand, queuing up with the Ukrainians meant that I wasted almost an hour in the no-man’s land between runway and baggage collection. On the other hand, it meant that I could get a real feel for post-Brexit EU travel, without the associated visa costs. Lucky me! Shortly after passing through, I was then selected for a bag search by customs officials for the first time in my life. Thankfully, they didn’t find any of the top-notch Ukrainian LSD or young Russian children that I was trafficking into Poland…

Consonants and solidarity

Gdańsk is a nice enough city. Since I’d been in Ukraine for a short while, I was definitely running a bit low on the whole Old Town cobbles and churches vibe. Gdańsk certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. However, there are two real treats for me in this Baltic beauty. The first is Wrzeszcz, which is handily named in a very pronouncable way. Wrzeszcz is the suburb where I stay during my time in Poland. It’s the kind of place that gets called ‘little Kreuzberg’, because there’s a place selling falafel and some young people have beards. But it’s legit a really nice area with a bunch of tasty veggie places (e.g. the amazing Avo) and a great bar called Kurhaus that’s full of craft beers, friendly locals and a barperson who makes butterfly trousers.

While in Wrzeszcz, I stay in the most beautiful apartment with the most wonderful host. She knows the correct way to brew green tea AND she likes the film Timbuktu, so we’re immediately on to a winner. I want to know what my host likes in Gdańsk and the answer is not very much. So she takes me to Stocznia Gdańska, one of the few places that she has a lot of love for. Stocznia Gdańska is the shipyard where electrician Lech Wałęsa (later to become Nobel Peace Prize winning President of Poland) and other remarkable women and men organised the first of a series of strikes that led to the formation of the Solidarność trade union and eventually Polish independence in 1989. It’s also a pretty cool place to hang out, where you’re surrounded by ships and cranes on one side and a barren post-industrial landscape on the other.

The Polish way

My host also becomes an inspirational guide into Polish culture, most notably by introducing me to a variety of Polish cinema and literature. I haven’t finished any of the books yet, but I’ve started to delve into various films. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s (1987) Blind Chance gives us a glimpse of three possible scenarios for an individual in Communist-era Poland with the conclusion that our fate can switch at the drop of a beer and, ultimately, life never ends well. Andrzej Jakimowski’s (2007) Tricks is a cute reflection through a child’s eyes on how we can’t always control our destiny. Tomasz Wasilewski‘s (2016) United States of Love meditates on four women’s corrupted relationships with themselves and society, which exemplify everyone’s despondent loneliness. And let’s not forget the number one tip for understanding Poland: smoke lots of cigarettes.

In some way, this miserable melancholic realism has rejuvenated me as I return from my travels and settle back down to monotony and routine. But if that’s a little too downbeat, don’t worry, you can knock yourself out with one of Poland’s top disco polo stars, Akcent:

The ballad of Vladimir Kalashnikov (aka the joys of Ukrainian gangsters)

Everything is a bit scary before you arrive in Ukraine. In the queue for my flight from Vilnius airport, I read about taxi scams, corruption and organised crime. I start to prepare mentally for the apparent hypervigilance necessary for me to survive this Wild West outpost deep in the East. But once I arrive in Kiev, everything is suddenly pretty friendly and cool. I use an app to book a taxi with a driver whose only word of English is ‘music?’, after which he starts blaring Hark The Herald Angels Sing in our mid-August traffic jam. Later on that night, I help a woman carry a painting to her apartment. She seems thrilled that I am visiting Ukraine and proceeds to tell me all about the diverse architecture of Kiev and the crumbling magnificence of her hometown Odessa. I also meet a referee from the Ukrainian FA, who’s very happy to explain how much of a knob Mark Clattenburg is. My week gets even better when it turns out that my new friend’s musical reference point for me is East 17, which leads to some spectacular renditions of It’s Alright and Let It Rain.

The Croydon connection

Personally, I don’t experience any corruption or taxi scams. However, when I come into contact with Ukrainian organised crime, the gangster I meet seems just as friendly as your average Ukrainian non-criminal. Vladimir Kalashnikov (veracity of name: TBC) first comes onto my radar while I’m travelling on the train from Kiev to Odessa. When we stop in provincial central Ukraine, my two travelling friends from London get off for a frantic intake of nicotine. As they puff on their cigarettes, they get chatting to another passenger. He finds out that they’re from Croydon, which just so happens to be where his daughter is attending secondary school. Naturally, this means that my two mates become Mr Kalashnikov’s adoptive sons for the rest of the journey, which in turn means that all three of us are treated to his brandy facilitated banter. Before I continue, it’s worth pointing out that none of us know if Vladimir is gangster. But he pays for his daughter’s UK private education, owns a number of jewellery shops in Odessa and travels with the definition of a brick shithouse by his side. So yeah, the general Ukrainian consensus was that he probably has his fingers in a few blackmarket pies.

Vladimir Kalashnikov is a great storyteller. He starts off with the classic story of visiting Thailand with one of his boys and ending up heading towards a hospital because somebody got a bit too battered. Somewhere along the way, Vladimir met some Thai girls, who ended up giving him a blowjob. The reason we know that they gave him a blowjob is because Vladimir stands in the carriage among a Chinese family and shows us the necessary motions as he doesn’t have the necessary English words. A short interlude follows. During this, Mr Kalashnikov points at me and proclaims “your friend doesn’t like me.” Luckily, one of my mates speaks Russian and saves me from a trip to A&E by letting Vladimir know about my resting bitch face. After a few casual but slightly heavy back slaps, our Ukrainian friend continues with a new story, this time set in the Himalayas. After the laddishness of his previous story, we expect more of the same. However, Vladimir actually ends up describing how he got trapped in a blizzard for a few days after losing a friend on a trek and assuming he was dead. This resulted in the amputation of a few toes (and no fellatio).

Ukraine: Not just wars and borsch

I love the time that I spend in Ukraine, with its fascinating clash of old European grandeur, vast Soviet bleakness and contemporary emergent capitalism. Prior to visiting, the little knowledge I had of the country revolved around the war in the Donbass. In Kiev and Odessa, the war is both not there and completely there. Walking around the Maidan, it’s difficult to comprehend that this was the site of a civilian massacre 2 years ago….until you realise that the photos lining the street are memorials to the murdered. Likewise, the Ukrainians that I meet don’t tend to speak about the war….but if you switch on the TV, there’s a channel providing comprehensive coverage of the Donbass, interjected with breaks that cover other wars in Ukraine’s rich history.

My lasting image of Ukraine though is that of the people. Whether they were calmly threatening me with a quick bicep flex or comparing me to Brian Harvey, the Ukrainians I met all had an open warmth and inquisitiveness. We could do with more of this Eastern spirit in the UK.

Lithuania: Home to Kim Jong-un billboards and great baked treats

After Riga, it was back on that Baltic bus luxury towards Lithuania. This time I watched The Fifth Estate as we cruised through the Latvian landscape and approached the Soviet apartment blocks that surround the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Lithuania is the largest of the three Baltic states, but again, it was a place that I knew very little about. I know a couple of Lithuanians in London and had spotted their magnificently coloured flag while on the bus in Leyton. But that was about all…

Guess what? Another Old Town!

Once I arrive in Vilnius, I head on a trolley-bus to my apartment, then back into town to meet my friend who has flown over from the UK. Over the next few days, I find it difficult to get a strong grasp of Lithuania. Vilnius does have a very pretty Old Town, but by this point I’m quite fatigued by medieval buildings, churches and cobbled streets. In other news, milk is called pienas, there’s a pregnancy test called Ouch! and Kim Jong-un advertises Lithuanian pork rolls.

We get out of Vilnius for a couple of days and visit my colleague in Kaunas. Unfortunately, a friend in London and my Riga host’s fiancee have both questioned why I would ever visit the town, citing its abundance of ‘chavs’ as a reason to avoid. Naturally, I’m fated to view Kaunas through these chav-tinted glasses (although the multiple appearances of some accordian-playing Hare Krishnas on the New Town high street provides a mild distraction). We also visit a nice big lake and castle in Trakai, which is gorgeous, but rather touristy.

Hipster cakes and mushrooms

If I’m honest, the best thing for me about Lithuania is the cakes. On the recommendation of my Riga connection, one of the first things I do in Vilnius is grab something to eat at vegan cafe Chaika. I cannot fault this place! The coffee is rich and strong, the interior is full of vintage armchairs and my man is playing Coltrane on vinyl. But the most amazing part of my Chaika experience is the cake. Call me pretentious and you’d be right, because I choose their vegan matcha chocolate cake with raspberry coulis and it’s so lush. The other wonderful sweet treat in Lithuania are these gingerbread-filled mushroom-shaped bad boys, which I buy on a whim and love.

A dreamy departure lounge cinema

When I get to Vilnius airport, I’m given a beautiful surprise. Instead of being forced to walk through perfumes and whiskey, I come across a mini-cinema showing short films for travellers to watch while they wait. I love films and get annoyed by enforced capitalism, so this is heavenly. I watch a lovely Hungarian film by a director Barnabás Tóth. The film is about an older man Vilmos, who drives his wife around. His wife is a bit of moaner, always redirecting Vilmos in the wrong directions and complaining about his driving. As the film unfolds, you find out where Vilmos has been driving his wife and the film takes a touching turn. Anyhow, I won’t spoil it, so check out My Guide:

It was a great way to finish up in the Baltics and prepare for my journey into Ukraine…

Getting down with Stalinism, 9/11 and Russian funerals in Latvia

After having a close encounter with an Estonian dog, the bar for Baltic stimulation was set pretty high. But Latvia did not disappoint. First things first: travelling between the Baltics is brilliant. You know how National Express has no leg room and dubious WiFi? You know how Megabus is cheap but the toilets haven’t been cleaned for weeks? I took the coach from Tallinn to Riga for £8. It had free internet and a sanitised toilet, my knees didn’t scrape the seat in front and I watched Me and Earl and the Dying Girl on my own personal in-ride entertainment tablet. So yeah, it was pretty good.

Riga: More than an Old Town

As pretty as Tallinn was, the Old Town admittedly becomes somewhat boring after three days. Riga was a welcome relief. One of the first buildings I notice is the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a beautifully imposing Stalinist construction reminiscient of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. Riga is the largest of the Baltic cities and this is what I really enjoy about it. Over the next few days I walk through the (very typical) Old Town, but am also able to explore its Art Nouveau district (complete with creepy-melancholic-stalker-face man), enjoy the craft-beer-flavoured fruits of mild gentrification and see what’s left of the Riga Ghetto (i.e. not a lot).

A spontanteous encounter leads to my best day in Riga. After visiting a museum about Latvia’s independence movement (ever heard of the 1989 Baltic Way, where 2 million people formed a 675km human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius via Riga?), I meet a local who contacted me via Couchsurfing. For the next 8 hours, she proceeds to show me all the cool shit in Riga that you don’t really experience unless you live there. The highlight was sitting behind the shipyard on the river Daugava, drinking beers and chatting. We discuss voter participation in Latvia (high) versus UK (low), BADBADNOTGOOD, and how Riga is home to some residential twin towers located at street number 9/11.

The next day I visit Ķemeri National Park, a stretch of sprawling green nature about half an hour on the train from Riga. On the walk back, I accidentally stumble through what appears to be a Russian funeral, full of solemnly threatening men, Orthodox crosses and tearful but expensively-dressed women. I escape unscathed, soak in the happiness that a day spent in the sun brings and get ready for my VIP coach ride to Lithuania…