If it's Wednesday, it must be Hamburg. Oh Christ, it's Thursday, so that means Hanover. Or does it? Surely I am supposed to be in Leipzig — at least that's what my order book says.
Oh yes, that's right, Hanover is tomorrow. Thank goodness for that, but oh no, it's another of those 9pm kickoffs and that will mean a 2am train back to my base, a stone's throw from where the Berlin wall came down. The birds will be singing by the time I roll into bed. This is surely no life for a stressed-out fiftysomething who's worn the T-shirt on so many occasions it must be time to change it and get a decent job.
Welcome, dear reader, to the freelance's guide to the World Cup, where the three Hs — hunger, heat and hassle — have emerged from their four-year hibernation to once again sap the energy of even the most passionately enthusiastic hack.
Oh, I know what you're thinking. "Poor chap, what a hard life, being paid to watch the best footballers in the world for free" or words to that effect. How can he possibly complain? In a way, I can understand such sentiments, being, at heart, a fan like anyone else who loves nothing more than to feel the buzz of a live game.
Would I prefer to have remained at home and stayed glued to the television like billions of others, with little compensatory paid-for work? No I wouldn't. Rather than be here, would I have preferred to meet up with mates in the pub and get pleasantly inebriated, screaming and shouting at England's worrying defensive lapses and scandalous lack of strikers? Now that is tempting, but again, on balance, I'm not giving up my accreditation.
But let me tell those of you who envy us World Cup stalwarts a few home truths. From irregular eating patterns to 15-hour days, from sweaty stationto- stadium media buses to impromptu computer glitches, this is undeniably no piece of Kuchen, as the Germans might say.
Take the first Saturday of the tournament, for instance, four days after arriving in Germany with the usual mixture of anticipation and trepidation.
Saturday is a day when I am used, of course, to covering Premiership football for the national Sunday press in the UK, but not under quite the same circumstances. Having just closed my laptop after reporting on a wonderful exhibition of football between Argentina and the luckless if naïve Ivory Coast, I found myself sitting in the main station at Hamburg — a city I'm told that is among the most glorious in Germany, but which I have had absolutely no chance to explore — waiting for a train, any train, to return me to Berlin.
As the station's late-night fast-food shops began to close and the partygoers and regular fans drifted home or back to their hotels, I grabbed a stale sandwich and a bottle of water, sat on platform two and waited… and waited. I can't say I either enjoyed or loathed the subsequent journey because I can't recall much of it, having fallen into a deep slumber.
All I do remember is that I eventually got to bed at shortly before 5am, by which time a new dawn had broken to herald the next day's matches — and after three hours' sleep I was soon in the shower preparing to travel to my next assignment: Holland versus Serbia and Montenegro.
Over here, over-tired and underpaid? Sometimes it feels like that, yet there is an intoxicating fascination about covering the World Cup, for which virtually every accredited journalist has a love-hate relationship.
Hassles there are aplenty, but unmissable? You bet, for every one is of them is different. Four years ago in Korea and Japan, a cultural awakening for the European reporter, I saw more smiling faces that at any previous tournament I can remember. But the prohibitive costs, combined with the time difference and total unfamiliarity, made for the toughest of all World Cups to cover.
Germany, by contrast, is reasonably comfortable as a working environment as well as being refreshingly colourful and hospitable, given the country's reputation for staid efficiency. The fan-fests, set up in all cities where matches are played, have been a revelation.
Where previous World Cups have discouraged ticketless fans, Germany positively embraces them and thousands have taken advantage by pouring into openair parks to watch the games on giant screens, flanked by all manner of food stalls and beer stands.
Irritating issues But Germany, too, has more than its fair share of infuriations for the working freelance, with every media centre seemingly making up its own rules yet insisting they are just doing their job, guv. Bags are searched at random depending where you are and, seemingly, which day of the week it is. ‘Never trust another journo' seems to be the message after a spate of laptop thefts.
But there are far more irritating issues. In Hamburg, I was stopped from entering the stadium simply because I was carrying a plastic water bottle that was not sponsored by one of the official World Cup brands. I kid you not. In Leipzig, I was allowed to take the same said bottle into the press room — but only if the label was removed. In Hanover, I was ordered to leave my water behind completely and in Munich I was asked to drink the entire contents first before being allowed in for fear of it containing some kind of explosive material. Get the picture?
All this may sound distinctly petty, but when the sun is beating down and you are carrying a laptop, bags and all manner of reference books, it is exactly the kind of irritation that can break the stressed-out journo camel's weighed-down back.
So, from a copy deadline standpoint, can the fact that more often than not, feeds from official postmatch press conferences — for which, for some unearthly reason, you need a special pass — often break down, giving you all the visual you need, but sadly no sound. Silence is not the easiest way to gather much-needed second-edition quotes.
All of this pales into insignificance, however, with the scandalous and unprecedented charges being levied by the German telecom company responsible for broadband and wireless facilities at each venue.
No one is allowed to use these without forking out a staggering up-front £350 to subscribe. And that's just in the media centres. Filing with broadband or wireless from your stadium seat will set you back another £120 per game, arguably the most overtly greedy and exploitative World Cup policy I have ever encountered.
Bag full of memorabilia First-class travel is complementary for foreign journalists — although it requires three Euros to reserve an actual seat in a first-class carriage. But often the only first-class carriage is already sold out, forcing you to sit in the corridors. And where every other media centre were only too happy to book you a seat, Hamburg's press centre decided it had not received any instructions to this effect and would only do so on presentation of a credit card – for three Euros!
Yet for all this, there are so many positive compensations — without the complementary firstclass train travel, for example, few freelances would make a profit. I have yet to come across anyone among the hundreds of uniformed volunteers who has been anything less than courteous and willing to oblige. Meeting up with back-slapping international colleagues you haven't seen since the previous World Cup always provides a unique emotion, as does the vibrant atmosphere inside stadiums.
All in all then, there is nowhere I would rather be during the month of June — Wimbledon notwithstanding — but what, I ask myself, ever happened to those much-anticipated football freebies?
Traditionally, World Cup hosts present all accredited reporters with a welcome bag full of memorabilia: caps, T-shirts, key rings, that sort of thing. Sometimes even more exotic goodies like radio sets and wallets.
The child-like excitement of checking in your World Cup bags to discover what Christmas had brought six months early used to be de rigueur.
This time, there have been no World Cup bags.
In fact, nothing at all. Oh, except for a stats book covering each player — vitally important during the tournament itself, but hardly a collector's item — and a token toothbrush and toothpaste.
Whatever is the World Cup coming to?