Der Himmel Über London.

The sky at night over London is alive. Perhaps not with immortal angels listening in to the thoughts of those down below but very much alive it is.
A camera, a tripod and an Internet forum thread with tips on settings was everything we needed but for the skies themselves. Then, for a handful of nights in February, the heavens pitched in to show that, yes, alive indeed they are.
A trail of white lights: a stream running from left to right like an avenue in the sky over the western part of the city. Further to the left and higher up, a faint halo: a stack of Plasmon biscuits made of red lines and dots. Planes coming in to land at Heathrow airport; more planes – or perhaps the same – patiently waiting for their turn in a ‘stack’, a gigantic three-dimensional racetrack where planes enter from up above and descend, slowly but steadily, until it’s their turn to line up for the runways. As they proceed, as they move about the sky, they leave a faint but indelible trace on the sequence of 1 and 0s that make the RAW file captured by my camera’s sensor. In the deepening turquoise of London’s evening, the sky is not populated by angels. It’s business consultants coming home, travellers transferring on to the late night long hauls, it’s pilots and cabin crews. People.
On our second attempt the twilight had well and truly been washed away from the sky. We left the camera on its tripod, quietly whirring away, and went about our business. When we returned, after well more than an hour, we had an unexpected surprise: not only had the sensor captured the pale, blinking lights of the jets but it had also recorded things we had never figured we could see. Strange curving lines – some green, some white, some stronger, some paler – bisecting the dotted vectors of commercial flights. They were so intriguing that we ignored the novelty of having been able to capture not just Heathrow’s but also City’s traffic: what were they?
The answer could only be satellites.

There are an estimated 4,600 satellites orbiting around Earth, not including junk. Tiny moons we can’t see with naked eye but that, still basking in direct sunlight, describe their serene trajectories as they allowed humans to communicate with one another, share Instagram photos or spy over unsuspecting fellow earthlings.
Night #3 brought a change. A breeze from the east meant a shift in air operations: airliners would no longer cruise over the city en route to Heathrow, opting instead for an approach that led them above Windsor. Take offs, on the other side, would aim for the city, swerving gently over north London to avoid the centre. Fully expecting a less crowded scene we nonetheless set up our camera pointing northwards, ready to capture whatever may come.
Boy weren’t we in for a surprise.

Beacons criss-crossed the sky in delicate networks, the lights of the departing widebodies bound for the East and Africa mingling with thin necklaces of green and red anti-collision lights of those flights that already were at cruising altitude. Here and there, like old friends stopping by for a quick greet, were the satellites, sailing higher than anyone could.
Days of morning fog ensued before, eventually, a clear dawn appeared. A clear dawn with no easterly winds. As they arrived from China, Singapore and South Africa the early morning flights lined up diligently and, one after the other, came in to land with their cargo of yawning families, execs straightening the knot of their ties and window seat dreamers. To the east, behind the towers of Canary Wharf, a golden glow announced a new day.

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Beyoğlu’s resilience.

I’ve since long harboured the dream of having – or, more modestly, staying at – a house on the Bosporus. Something with balconies abutting the waterfront, or perhaps a terrace with a view of the passing ships, a bottle of Sipsmith at the ready and a supply of tonic water and cucumbers.
Alas, that dream hasn’t quite morphed into reality: as it seems, waterfront real estate is either occupied by Dolmabahçe Palace – which, I’m told, is not for sale – or by a monumentally large Four Seasons hotel whose clientele, at least judging by what I can gather from the outside, isn’t in the same line of business as I am. In the meantime I have to make do with Beyoğlu, that part of Istanbul that I loosely identify with Galata, Karaköy and the meander of streets fanning away from Istiklal caddesi. Don’t get me wrong here: as far as second choices go, this is the softest of landings.

The subconscious, as always, plays a big part. I love Genoa and the whole Liguria region in which she sits, pretty and smug: in Istanbul all you need to do is to scratch here and there and, voilá, the red-blue DNA of Galata will emerge. But there are also more objective reasons: chiefly Beyoğlu’s liveliness and relative libertarianism. Other parts of town might have sunk under the touristic onslaught or might be sulking in a sense of betrayal and abandonment; some will have evolved into soulless dormitories. Not here. Beyoğlu has what London lost or sold decades ago: charisma, identity and that very abused locution, “A sense of place”.

Lately, though, I’ve been coming here on tiptoe, as you’d do when entering the room of somebody who’s very sick. Encroached by terrorism on one side – the Daesh suicide attack in 2016, the Kurdish car bombs outside Beşiktaş’ Vodafone Arena on the same year and more – and authoritarianism on the other – why do you need water cannons outside Gezi Park? – I always dreaded to find the place a shadow of its former self.

I needn’t have worried.
Under a very British drizzle, Karaköy’s hipster scene was flourishing in the former docks that – the whole world over –  seem to have been built with the sole purpose of being refurbished into bars and cafés.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
In the streets leading to the sea small-town life continues unabated with barbers flapping razors in the air when labouring a point; in Galata, meanwhile, the stairway leading to my hotel had been blocked by a music video set.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Boys still needed just a guitar to hook up with adoring fans.

Above all, there still was Istiklal caddesi. Past the barricades erected around Lycée Galatasaray, regardless of the threat of bombings, the place still throbbed with people.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Thousands strolled up and down as dozens of buskers played folk music from Anatolia. Writer Charles Bukowski is alleged to have said, once, that “people are the best show in the world”. If he really had said that, he must’ve passed through Beyoğlu on a Saturday afternoon.

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Faces of Ortaköy.

Today’s a popular day to be in Ortaköy.
Day-trippers are flocking to the waterfront.
Outnumbered, the locals have made a hasty retreat to the fishmonger’s. Better let the tide ebb away.
Only one thing is for sure: tomorrow, they’ll all be gone. Only Artichoke Man will remain.

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Vapur abstraction.

There’s a concept I sometimes hear from my software engineer chums: abstraction, or the process of removing all sorts of attributes – be them physical, spatial, temporal – to get to the root of something (usually a system, since we’re talking software), to the basic elements that what really interest them.
I’m not an engineer so I don’t know if abstraction requires a vehicle. In case it does, I’ve found mine. For a cheap fare, the swipe of a pre-paid magnetic card, I can forego all those attributes – bundable under a generic, non-numeric scatological term – that do not add value to my life and concentrate on what I really want to focus on in the here and now. The vehicle can come in two forms: it can be green, white and yellow when operated by Sehir Hattari or, if it’s a Turyol, white and blue. An Istanbul ferry. A vapur.

There’s something, in this city, that keeps on pulling me in. It might be the history, the fact of having a XIV century home built by the Genoans as your neighbour; it might be the people, in all their fascinating contradictions. All I know is that a key element to explain why, every now and then, I end up here is the feeling of taking a vapur.
Karaköy Pier has been renovated and is a rather modernist affair, now. I swipe and find myself, by accident rather than by design, on the Turyol end of the building. Eyup it is, then.
The trip up the Golden Horn is a refresh of a history I have never lived. An hourglass of çay by my side, a train of squeaking seagulls in our wake and a crow perched on top the canvas cover is all we need for the trip. The vapur parades past Fener, Balat, St Mary of the Mongols: places where the Greeks made their last stand in 1453 and where their imprinting is still visible, ever so faintly. We chug on and I wonder about what happened to those I’d met there last time.

Eyup arrives all of a sudden, almost announced. The hill of the graves is there, grim in the grey weather. We’re almost out of water, the Golden Horn has become land and homes and streets and a cable-car. Somebody, down below, yells something that I take to mean to get off.
I disembark with a posse of cougars voluptuously trailed by a cloud of perfume and decide that, no, I don’t want to stay in Eyup. I turn and run back into the pier, Turkish Sarah Jessica Parker watching in disbelief, and abscond in the warm embrace of the lower deck, admiring the spectacle of those commuting to Eminönü. The tea seller, seeing me again, asks if I’d found his mother-in-law waiting at the pier.
Sunday. My Istanbul layover has come to an end just as a lovely sun is warming up the Bosporus. A flight beckons at Atatürk but I still have time for another ride. Eminönü pier is just to the left of Galata bridge and, berthed, is one of those beautifully démodé Sehir ferries, those with the razor-sharp prow, rounded stern, wooden viewing decks and pictures of Atatürk hanging from the panelled bulkhead.

I board as my phone purrs into life and begins downloading emails, buzzing as it does. After a Friday travelling I opted for not opening the laptop and, instead, drank beers watching TV. This is payback. But as soon as the mooring lines are off, and this intercontinental journey of 10 minutes starts, it’s all forgotten.
Out there in the narrow channel there’s no office, work or pressing problems. It’s just the sun painting Sultanahmet gold, the bridges, the light mist hanging above the water and the cargo ships going about their business. Sat aft on this beautiful ferry I daydream about the feasibility of reconfiguring one of these marvels into a private yacht with which to hop around the Med – Beirut, Alexandria, Palermo, Naples, Oran, Marseille – and beyond, to Tangiers and the Caribbean, perhaps flying the flag of one of those countries that register the container ships moored at Haydarpaşa.
A voice in Turkish drags me out of my shipbuilding dreams. A young man, meticulously shaven and coiffured, is asking something. All he’s missing to pass for a Mormon is a plastic badge, but I doubt he’s putting up a spiel on Jesus. A second well-groomed guy is summoned as soon as it dawns on them that I might look Turkish but, in fact, I ain’t.
There’s five of them, all soldiers. Squaddies on a free day, wanting a photo taken. Here they are in Kadiköy harbour, happy and proud as they should be, with only 70 days to go before the end of conscription. Sixty-nine days and a wake-up, as they said in Platoon.

On the deck below a man runs a tespih in his hands as we float near Ayasofya. We dock and I take the tram back towards Yusufpaşa. It’s only when I’m in the bowels of Atatürk, sitting in front of a 0.75 l glass of Efes, that I realise that I haven’t thought about work at all since I boarded the vapur.

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Istanbul 6 AM

Les travestis vont se raser
Les strip-teaseuses sont rhabillées
Les traversins sont écrasés
Les amoureux sont fatigués
Or so sang Jacques Dutronc in his masterpiece Il est cinq heures, Paris s’éveille
It’s 6AM in Istanbul, but we’re a couple of hours ahead and Istanbul, well, s’éveille aussi. The guards at Aksaray metro station won’t come out of the sentry box because it’s 6AM and even Daesh is having a lie-in today.
The simit sellers are already out supplying the Galata fishermen who’d been out there all night, catching God knows what.
The shops at the foot of Galata escarpment are already open, or perhaps not yet closed. Cats slip in and out, dancing around empty bottles of raki. It’s a Saturday morning.
The New Mosque is all wrapped up in plastic and scaffolding, but Suleymaniye gleams up top and Ayasofya is still looking as if she’d got everything figured out.
It’s six AM in Istanbul. The transvestites are going for a pass of the Bic, the strippers have got their parkas on again, bolsters are crushed, lovers are tired and I’ve found my hotel. Perhaps I can sweet talk the consierge into really relaxing that early check-in policy.

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Treading lightly – or how I offset my 2018 CO2 emissions.

Unless you’ve taken up a flatshare with Bikini Bottom’s Patrick Star, you’ll have heard about CO2 trading. In the EU version of the thing, a cap is set on specific emissions, which is also constantly lowered year after year. If you find yourself above it, then you’ve got to buy credits – effectively supporting schemes to reduce emissions somewhere else.
However, you might be excused to think this could apply only to large corporations and not to the average Joe (I certainly didn’t); after all, how much greenhouse gases could realistically a person emit?
I always considered myself to be a fairly low-carbon human being, at least based on my average peer group made of wealthy Westerners. I don’t own a car, I commute by public transport or, as the Latins would say, pedibus calcantibus; my purchases of cheap cotton clothes are limited to the absolute necessary, which is to say that most of my T-shirts have witnessed at least two World Cups; and my consumption of red meat has steadily declined. Yes, there’s the flying but… come on, how much can that amount to?
Forty point something tons for 2018.
Forty point something tons, or 40.19 if you feel numerically inclined, is more or less equivalent to the weight of an average adult sperm whale. Or 7 African elephants. Or, if you’re struggling to figure them out, 350 LeBron Jameses.
To quote very freely from Led Zeppelin, that’s a lotta fartin’.
How did I get to that? Well, by entering the flights made last year in’s carbon calculator. Climatecare is an Oxford-based NGO that offers carbon offsetting services not just to large corporations but, as I found out, to the average Joe too. All that one needs to do is to plonk in the figures of one’s flying, including classes of travel, and voilà the cost is returned at a fee of £7.50 per ton, or $9.67.
My 40.19 tons have been the result of 42 flight and have costed me, to offset, £301 and change. For those of you who use dollars, that’s 388 pieces with George Washington printed on it, which Climatecare will invest in projects aimed at reducing the footprint of day-to-day activities in developing nations. What I’ve learnt is that the plushier the seat, the higher the emissions. For instance a London-Tashkent return flight in economy accounted for 1.4 tons of the bad stuff, whilst a London-JFK in Business – for a flight of similar duration – emitted 4.41 tons. First is even worse.
Most of these flights have been done for work; should I have paid to offset them? My answer, ultimately, is yes. It was my bum on those seats and, ultimately, I agreed to go there. Following orders didn’t work at Nuremberg and won’t cut it here too. And, at the end of the day, it’s a nice feeling, the one of being as carbon neutral as one possibly can.

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Porteño portrait.

There’s only a way to define my desire to describe a community of 13 million people after visiting it for a mere handful of days: preposterous.
Still, this is what I’ll attempt here. This is my final tribute to Buenos Aires, to this city sandwiched between the blue ocean and a sea of green grass. I might probably fail but, deep inside me, I feel compelled to make at least an attempt. I must.
There are, in this city, constant reminders of Rio de Janeiro. It’s not just the warmth of an off-season, at least for me, sun; it’s also the fresh fruit, the multi-faceted urban texture that blends colonial stunners and 1970s eyesores, Armenian churches and swanky condos and that sub-tropical decay that seems to hit only the public infrastructure. Yet, there’s a difference. Despite the criminality, economic uncertainty and the never-ending procession of crooked politicians, Cariocas struck me as being, generally, in a good mood. Maybe it’s the musicality of Brazilian Portuguese, perhaps they genuinely are; whatever the truth,  the same can’t be said of the Porteños.
I guess it was the heat sapping their energy, but the Porteños looked tired as they lingered in the air conditioned cars of el Subte for a tad longer than one would normally do, or when they fanned themselves with newspapers and leapt from shadow to shadow in an exahusted pas de danse. They didn’t, by far and large, appear to be enjoying the hot season.

The Argentines seem a lot more pugnaceous than their northerly neighbours. Proofs of this heightened social awareness are legion on the city’s walls. Peronismo Militante is a slogan common throughout San Telmo. Macri mafioso says a tag scribbled on a kiosk within spitting distance from Congress. Victims of the society’s machismo or the police’s heavy hand – Lucía Pérez and Santiago Maldonado – are remembered in posters affixed everywhere.
It isn’t just this, though. To limit one’s analysis at protest marches and wall-tagging would be shallow and, more importantly, ungenerous towards the porteños. It’s not all just Evita and pressure group offices festooned with slogans such as Luchamos por su derechos. There’s more than that to this city, a lot more.
There’s the young lad who takes the time to explain to this lanky visitor how to recharge his Subte card. There’s the car on Line B erupting in a spontaneous applause at the end of a saxophonist’s exibition. Commuters on Line C do the same for a rapper. There’s the care with which everyone handles the notes, scribbled on scraps of paper, left by a young beggar working the train line, giving them back to him with a few coins. There’s the kindness shown by every single commuter, at Plaza Miserere, in dealing with the homeless man selling soft-tip pens to make ends meet.

Of all the facets and behaviours I’d seen of Buenos Aires’ inhabitants, the aspect that will remain with me the longest will be their humanity.
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On the market.

Non è da signori. This was a veritable leitmotiv of my youth. It’s a phrase hard to render properly into English, non è da signori. I doubt is very much in use these days; from my point of view, I heard it mostly from my grandmother when she wanted to point out that something – my behaviour, a sport I played, you name it – wasn’t gentlemanly, or worthy of an educated person.
Markets, I thought in those rather gullible years, weren’t da signori. Perhaps it was due to the general shabbiness of our city’s own, which I only saw at the end of the school day when a few stalls were left and only the detritus of the morning’s trades were left; but if you asked me, markets weren’t a nice place to go to.

As it often happens, it wasn’t until I flew the nest (not too far, for it was less than 70 km to Turin) that I started forming a different opinion, based on my own experience rather than on the influence of others.
Porta Palazzo market was, and is, very much unlike the rest of the old Turin city centre. It’s a sprawling city district, its beating heart a belle époque gallery made in cast iron and glass where one can find fresh vegetables and Romanian wines, catch of the day and the smelliest toma cheese, cheap clothes and Moroccan take-aways. At its margins lie an Oort cloud of Chinese bodegas and Nigerian minimarkets selling everything from pre-paid SIMs to plantain. It’s also the best place to buy drugs and, when the Saturday Balon flea market takes place, it’s also where the pieces of your stolen bicycle are likely to be found on sale.
With Porta Palazzo everything I’d ever known about markets turned on its head. Porta Palazzo was the start of a journey that brought me quite far. Billingsgate, Tsukiji, Noryangjin, Besiktas. The bazaars of Almaty, Osh and Dushanbe. The Mercado de San Pedro in Cusco. Isfahan’s labyrinthine Grand Bazaar. Not once was I scammed, not once poisoned. Can’t say the same of restaurants or cafés in any of those cities.
There’s a market in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. It sits perilously on a very important divide, the great chasm between the real deal and the tourist trap. Nuwara Eliya’s Central Market or Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel: which way will it go? Probably the latter, but perhaps not yet. There’s still a butcher or one of those shops selling everything from bread to washing powder where the retailers wear white coats.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Markets aren’t just places where one can go shopping for foods that won’t turn his guts’ weather forecast to brown rain. They’re also the best way to take the pulse of a city, to sit and watch it come and go. Buenos Aires, I’d said it before and I’ll be saying it again, is the Real Madrid of people watching; San Telmo’s Mercado is its epicentre. And long may it last.

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Room with a view.

Vista más bonita, said one review of my Buenos Aires hotel. On a late afternoon on the day of my arrival, I couldn’t but agree.
But the real stunner came the following morning, at dawn.
Habitación con vista indeed.
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A fire in Balvanera and other stories: a brief glimpse into Buenos Aires.

Something is burning on Avenida Rivadavia.
White smoke is rising in thick plumes from a shop on the south side of the road, cutting the perspective like a curtain hanging from the trees. Flames fan out intermittently and passers-by scatter, giggling nervously. Muffled explosions, then, add an undertone of drama. Contrary to what would have happened in London, half the barrio descended on the sidewalks to nose in. Some even bring out their chairs.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
If terrorism is on anyone’s mind it doesn’t show. I watch my new neighbours, for I’d just checked in at a nearby hotel that day, as they indulge in the very Mediterranean habit called, in Italian, farsi gli affari altrui (minding the others’ business). They are a diverse bunch, my fellow balvaneros: Bolivians, sturdy men with gleaming black hair; Venezuelans, almost to a man wearing the hat of their baseball team; Chinese shopkeepers; Dominicans and countless more, all enthralled by the spectacle that is spicing up this Saturday afternoon.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Buenos Aires’ finest are already on scene, wearing their purple polos that makes them look like Torino FC fans.
Avenida Rivadavia is promptly blocked by a police cruiser, lights flashing, whilst the traffic wriggles like a skittish horse through the grid of one-way roads that lead away from the boulevard. An ambulance finds a hole through the irate clot of cars and is greeted with scornful jeers by the onlookers. “Donde estan los putos bomberos?” yells somebody from the shadow of a Chinese shop. An air conditioning unit drips water from up above as some sort of silent clue. Eventually the fire brigade arrives and everyone disperses – me included.

Somewhere, somebody must be selling iced Quilmes.
Sundays rhyme with market in San Telmo. In this politically-aware neighbourhood shutters go down over slogans such as Peronismo Militante and stalls mushroom on Plaza Dorrego and along Avenida Defensa, climbing above and around obstacles and roadworks. Handicrafts and old fur coats, tat and antique photos stretch for kilometres.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
I sit at a café on the southern edge of the plaza, tiny sparrows hovering like hummingbirds above the tables, ready to spoon up crumbs. There are tourists browsing the antiques and locals getting their blood pressure checked at an NHS gazebo; women with oversize crucifixes dangling from their necklaces inspect ancient bottles of eau de seltz whilst observant Jews cruise past pushing baby strollers.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The staff at my bar, from the two waiters to the mamacita who obviously runs the shop, are indios. Unlike my Balvanera compadres they don’t have the strong, aquiline traits typical of the peoples of the Andes: their lineaments are softer, their build leaner, their gait almost a dance. People of the forest, Amazonas.
The man who stops and kisses all of them on the cheeks, taking the time to call the girl “Preciosa”, is their polar opposite: tall, with white hair combed backwards and scrupulously waxed moustache. The kind of man you’d be expecting to be immortalised in a statue standing tall in a Mitteleuropean square. He orders two café con leche for “mas tarde” and then proceeds to inspect a stall selling Oriental antiques, exchanging pleasantries with the owner who then explodes in a Homeric laugh; a former playboy strolls past, shirt unbuttoned to his belly, looking as if he’d had one Branca Menta too many.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Palermo, in the north, is a neighbourhood undergoing an identity crisis. Part of it dreams of being Miami: condos, palms, gated communities. Part is still as it was 100 years ago, cobbled streets and delicate two-storey mansions shaded by leafy trees. Then there’s Palermo Viejo, where one can experience what it feels to be inside the artwork of a Bomba Éstereo album, with the added side serving of hipster mainstays such as craft beer and Frida Kahlo.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Given its multi-faceted nature, it’s perhaps not a coincidence if odd things happen in Palermo, such as finding the mural painting of a pug or a Nagorno-Karabakh flag fluttering in the breeze outside a church.

It’s a fashionable, edgy and trendy barrio yet I  don’t feel immediately out of place like a Jehovah’s Witness in a floating bordello. I sit down for a beer and another look at the colourful buildings and at the beautiful people that inhabit them before realising that, alas, my time’s up. On my way out, I notice a guy sits outside a pizzeria, soaking on the atmosphere. Somehow, I understand him very well.

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