To the last city.

No, that’s a misnomer. Tashkent was, if anything, Uzbekistan’s first city, at least in the modern sense of the term. First one to be occupied by the Russians, first one to be reached by a railroad, first to host all those innumerable buildings and institutions – universities, hospitals, sports arenas, you get the idea – that aren the mainstay of a modern civitas. But since it was the last stop in my tour of the country, and the chance of quoting a Colin Thubron novel too good to pass on, Tashkent shall remain – for me at least – The last city.
Tashkent shares a great deal of past with the other peripheral outposts of the old Soviet empire that I’ve visited before, at least in terms of architecture. A cataclysmic event – war, or in this case, earthquake – makes tabula rasa of whatever existed before. An enlightened, inspired architect with a vision is called in; the kind of guy who’s got a hammer & sickle in his pupils, much like Scrooge McDuck has the $ sign. Insert enormous boulevards with double lines of poplars on each side – wide enough for the inevitable May Victory parade – douse everything with a sprinkle of monuments to the Glorious Dead in granite and bronze, dig through a metro system jealously guarded by the dourest matrons you can find and bien, mesdames et messieurs, voilà une autre ville sovietique. 
Not so quickly.
Tashkent has a few quirks, a few adaptations on the former-Soviet-now-free-market-major-city model. Let’s start, for instance, with Western decadence. Unlike other places – think at the motorcades of black Mercedes G55 AMGs that roam the streets of Moscow, the plethora of fast food joints of Kiev, or the hordes of new Land Cruises that parade through Almaty – all there is to show for the new consumerism are a few Mercs and Beemers, plus the heroic cyclist who, dressed in Lycra, has the guts to brave the city’s streets, daring to go where no cyclist has ever been before.

Then there are the Koreans. The neighbourhood where we’re staying in lies huddled around Mirobod Bazaar as if for need of extra warmth at night, and – through shops, restaurants and populace, if not for the omnipresent Chevrolets and Hyundais – has a decidedly Asian feel. Again, not quite your Soviet city.

The cultural rebranding of the Soviet heritage is as in full swing as it is elsewhere in Central Asia, but with markedly better results than in neighbouring countries. A central square, where once a giant head of Marx eyed everyone with much malignity (perhaps accusing each and every passer-by of having nicked the rest of his body) had gone, replaced with a rather more impressive statue of Amir Timur, Tamerlane for friends, on horseback. His right hand was raised in what I’m sure was meant to be an exhortation, but that to me looked remarkably  similar to a Nazi salute, especially if seen from the side. Still, the locals didn’t seem to mind and helped themselves to the wreath of flowers laid at his feet. Today, a girl called Umida took pride in informing us, was the big man’s birthday. We scurried away before I could confess that the idea of giving flowers to the warlord who flattened Baghdad as a past time seemed almost insulting to me.
Even Lenin had gone, his coat and waving arm replaced for a rather bling globe with an oversized Uzbekistan superimposed over it. Still, those yearning for those simpler times when ideologies still mattered only need to pay a visit to Hotel Uzbekistan, where service is as bad today as it was in the good old days of the Union.
Normally, cities like this would penetrate under my skin with considerable ease. I loved Yerevan, found deep satisfaction with Almaty and even Dushanbe, despite all its quirks, had on grown on me by the time I had to leave. Yet, nothing of this kind seemed to be happening with Tashkent. I sincerely wanted to grow fond of this city, of its metro smelling of damp, of its Smurfs-blue Orthodox cathedral, of its scenes of street life and of its frankly refreshing lack of big, corporate chains of clothing and food, but I felt constantly rebuffed. People looked at us as weirdos if we’d only ever attempted to greet them with a salaam alaykum on the street, as it was the norm in Samarkand and Bukhara; no one seemed to have time to stop and chat, but they somehow seemed to find a slot to to try and con us with scams that were almost heartwarming in their simplicity.
Cops patrolled ever street, every station and also appeared out of nowhere in city parks, ready to bar us from walking down a path that might’ve led to an old Soviet building, now hosting some unknown ministry and sporting some utterly unsightly decoration, symbol of the new regime. Tashkent, I reflected in our stuffy hotel whilst Russian guests argued over the Wi-Fi, was the epicentre of Uzbekistan’s big city attitude, the place where all the go-getters, all the wheelers and dealers of the nation congregated. And that, I guess, was what I didn’t like about it.

 

Posted in Central Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking up in Uzbekistan.

Remember shoegazing, that 1980s genre? Well, had any of those musicians been in Ulug Beg Madrasa, in Samarkand, they’d have missed this.

Sometimes it’s useful to be walking with one eye to the heavens and one to the floor. Especially in places such as Bibi Khanum mosque, where toddlers chase each other at ground level and masonry has a habit to fall from above. Tamerlane wanted it great and done quickly: he might’ve been the destroyer of Delhi and Baghdad, but even him ended up ripped off by the contractors.

Move over to the opposite side of town. A leafy boulevard, with not much but for a decent restaurant and a club pumping hardbass music behind blackened-out windows at 2PM. Enter the Orthodox church on the corner, stand in front of the altar and look up. You can almost hear the valzer. Da-da-da-da-daaa-daa…

Not far from there – it’s just a couple of wide alleys, odd statues and suicidal pedestrian crossings – it’s another place of worship, at least judging by the elderly ladies praying. But this is no church or mosque. It’s Tamerlane’s mausoleum. The tomb of the destroyer of so many Muslim cities is now a place of pilgrimage by devout Muslims. Sod orthodoxy. 

Again, outskirts. Bukhara, this time. Centuries before Islam, the prophet Job happened to pass by and found Bukhara in the midst of a terrible drought. He saw the suffering and decided to do something about it. He struck his walking stick in the ground and – right there! – a sweet water spring appeared, as if by magic. Today the spring – Chasma Ayub – is still there.
The Ark, despite its architectonic quirks, gave me a distinct impression of oppression, stale air, meaningless gestures, threat. Still, looking up at the ceiling of its in-built mosque one wouldn’t feel anything but this.

There’s yet another mosque next to the Ark, past the rather stinky (I guess that makes it authentic) Bolo reservoir, or hauz. Bolo Hauz mosque. Warm tones on the outside – wood, ochre, orange, red velvets – and on the inside… this. Picture me surprised, but in a nice way.

There’s a road, in Naples, called strada dell’anticaglia. It could be translated as “road of old tat” and its name is due to the amount of Roman architecture that sprouts out of everywhere in that street, evidently in the way of the exasperated locals who just wanted to build their homes without digging up yet another amphora. If these ceilings have given you the same feeling – old cupolas, old domes, Tamerlane, old old old – then I’ve got a partying gift. Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent. Say hello to God knows how many meters of tangible Socialism.

Until next time… ta-dah.

Posted in Central Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Buxoro PFC home: an excursion into Uzbekistan’s Premier League.

It is normally the case, at least for me, to be stumbling upon great finds almost entirely by chance, and today was exactly one such case. We were sitting on a topchan at the hotel, yet again cheered by endless supplies of tea and sweets, whilst I used Google maps to supplement my hand-drawn map’s deficiencies. Zooming back to include most of Bukhara in the picture, I noticed a new development, evidently included by some Mountain View coder exactly for eventualities such as these: a notification of specific events happening where I was looking. That day, a polite notice in red, hovering above the city’s stadium, said “Buxoro PFC – Pakhtakor 18.00”. We discussed it for a whole minute and then it was settled: we were going to sample Uzbekistan’s top football division.

The hubbub of excitement outside Bukhara’s football stadium, home of the city’s darlings, the Buxoro Professional Football Club, was palpable. The city’s finest were out in force, both the rather plump and jovial boys in green uniform and the lean, muscular and rather more serious members of the Milliy Gvardiya, the black-clad military cops. We were quickly discovering that stadiums in Uzbekistan are much more civilised than they are over in Italy.
Having gotten our two tickets, for a grand total of £1.20, we then approached the turnstiles. Clutching our stubs, we gingerly approached the phalanx of officers standing under menacing notices prohibiting access to people carrying bags, cameras, sticks, bottles and other indecipherable objects. We had one backpack, two cameras, one of which big enough to be used as a small telescope and inconspicuous like a member of the Harlem Globetrotters posing in a photo with a group of chin-strap penguins. Still, we need not have worried, because as soon as the notion of us being tourists spread amongst the guardians of the order, we were waved through amongst excited cheers of “Italia! Toto Cotugno!”. With the least thorough check seen in any major stadium in the world, we were in.
The ring of space between the outer fence and the concrete buttresses of the stadium reminded me of my hometown’s arena where I practiced track & field. Well-kept flowerbeds ran for the entire length of the stadium, completed with small cypresses and other trees. It was a rather gentle surrounding and a far cry from the holding pens and barbed-wire walkways I was more accustomed to see in the medieval fortresses that passed for football arenas over in the Bel Paese.
A photographer in hi-vis was snapping pictures of four lads in blue tracksuits, photo badges hanging from their necks, holding Buxoro scarves between their stretched hands. They must have been the local ultras. We watched them, and they watched us; but, unlike in Italy, where we would most probably be advised to sod off, or be rewarded for our impudence with a Glaswegian kiss, we found ourselves invited to join them in the part of the stands that had been claimed as their own domain. Again, unlike Italy, it was not one of the popular terraces furthest away from the pitch, but it was almost smack-bang on the centreline. These guys had it good.
To say that the arrival of two Italian visitors did not generate a bit of a stir would be a lie. In fact, the magnitude of the surprise we caused could be described by imagining that the Pope and Paul Weller appeared, alone and unannounced, to the North Stand at Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play on a rainy Wednesday evening. Never before I had been asked to pose for so many selfies, shake so many hands or to explain why Torino FC is better than Juventus (it really is, believe me).
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Whilst we went through the usual pleasantries that precede the beginning of a match – the ultras re-arranging their wares, players and referees pottering about on the pitch, pretty much everyone smoking like chimneys – I could not help but feel a bit nervous about the game. Allow me to explain.
You see, Buxoro PFC is what Italian commentators of the beautiful game liked to define a workmen’s team, a blue-collar group with big hearts and little fear, but also very shortly in supply of good feet. Its natural position, the food chain of the Uzbekistan Super League, was roughly halfway up the table, with far more frequent slips in the bottom than forays in the top half. Pakhtakor, on the other hand, might have meant cotton pickers, but it was clear that a lot of Amu Darya water had flown under the bridges since it was nothing more than an after-work distraction for kolkhoz labourers. Pakhtakor had a shiny new Adidas kit, had won the national title nine times since 2001, played home games in a stadium within spitting distance from the nation’s Senate and could boast, within the first squad, one Portuguese, one Brazilian, one Serbian and an Australian. By the looks of it, the most international experience that Buxoro had to offer was a previous career in purse-snatching across Europe’s train stations for the guy with jersey no. 8, but I could not be sure of that.
Predictably, as the game commenced, it was a tale of two teams: one sandwiched into its own half, and the other descending along the flanks like marauding Huns, throwing balls into the opponent’s penalty box as if they were raining. Only the sacrifice of Buxoro defenders, who used every bodily part allowed by the rules to stop the shots, and Tashkent’s utter incompetence were to thank for the result remaining on a goalless draw.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Buxoro’s responses were valiant, but their modus operandi – which the same Italian commentators quoted earlier would have defined Viva il Parroco or “long live the reverend” for its slapdashness – was utterly hopeless. As the minutes rolled by, it dawned on me that both team were made of players with clothes irons in lieu of feet. Still, to the valiant supporters of Buxoro it did not seem to matter much: the sun set, some floodlights were turned on and the cheering remained as frenzied as it was at the beginning. Drums kept on pounding a syncopated rhythm we could dance to, choirs we could only begin to understand ran from side to side and our flags fluttered in the evening breeze. The claque was led by a valorous band of brothers, amongst whom “Apocalypto”, thus nicknamed for his rather Mesoamerican features, stood head and shoulders above everyone else. We clapped, danced and had an almighty jolly good time, all whilst the ball bounced from head to head, and ankles were tackled with the same gay abandon as the leather sphere.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
In the meantime, I had started to get acquainted with my seatmate, a bear of a man who I took to call Muscles. Muscles chewed shovelfuls of snuff tobacco, pirouetted a large drum stick as if it was his own prehistoric club, smelt just ripe and swore so much that the other ultras had to repetitiously ask him to moderate his tone. He was a great company and we were having the best time. But that was when disaster struck.
Corner from the left for Pakhtakor. As the ball arched in toward the box our goalie, Amanov, abandoned his position to pick up some invisible daisies, or to do something which, from our point of view, was pretty unclear. Whatever the intentions, he succeeded in being beaten by Griffiths, the Aussie, whose wide forehead pistoned the ball towards the unguarded net. The goal had all but been assigned, were it not for the providential intervention of a Buxoro defender’s face, against which the ball slammed, undoubtedly causing life-changing injuries but saving the goal, which – at the end of the day – was all that mattered. The ball bounced back into the penalty box; Amanov tried to recover some dignity by slapping it away, failed, gave up and returned back; in the meantime, Goncalves, Tashkent’s Portuguese attacker, tossed the ball towards a squad mate. One of the Buxoro guys saw the ball cruising towards him; he remembered Ronaldinho’s Crazy Scorpion kick from FIFA Street Football and decided to give it a go. Needless to say, it ended in disaster: the ball bounced a few feet away from Goncalves, who threw himself in pursuit; Buxoro’s number 10, Salomov, threw a kick like a horse, aiming to launch the sphere into near-orbit. He obviously missed, delivering a kung-fu kick to Goncalves, who rightly fell to the ground in a series of spasms that were almost believable. Penalty.

So far, the supporters had been well behaved, undoubtedly because of the very large – and not at all friendly – police presence. Now, however, not even the threat of a stadium ban inflicted by the local branch of the KGB could held the Buxoro boys back. The whole stadium booed the decision and suggested, we were to learn, that the referee indulged in practices forbidden by most of the world’s religions and a good number of national law codes. Still, it was all for nothing. Goncalves arrived in position, whilst Amanov tried to distract him by flapping his arms as if he was a seagull. The referee whistled. Goncalves ran in for the kill and then hammered in a kick that would have stunned a mule. Amanov threw himself on the wrong side of the goal. The ball zoomed, rocketed towards the goal and… missed. Goncalves’ kick overshot the woodwork by a good meter, describing a perfect ballistic arc before landing on the athletics track. Buxoro was still in the game and, on the stands, we celebrated as if we had just scored.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
At that point, the tide began turning. The failed penalty had blown the wind out of Pakhtakor’s sails, whilst it roared into Buxoro’s. The boys in green began crossing into the other half, making more and more attempts to score; were it not for their apparent incapacity to run with a ball, it is safe to say that at least one would have engaged Tashkent’s goalie. Then, around the 43rd minute, Omonov, a feline-looking midfielder, darted towards the endline as if possessed by a demon. Throwing caution – and schemes, if ever they had them – to the wind, three Tashkent defenders lunged head over feet in hot pursuit, leaving wide tracts of their penalty box unguarded. A lupine Quittboev edged closer to the goal, all alone.
Omanov sprinted, sprinted and then sprinted some more. When it seemed boxed in and incapable of going one step further – the endline before him, three defenders all around his back – he pirouetted and, in the only display of finesse I was to witness in the whole game, dished out a low pass back to Quttiboev who, admirably, calculated the rebound, aimed and let go a veritable cruise missile, just a palm from the grass, straight into the net. Goal.
I had seen Italy beat France in the mayhem of my hometown’s main square, where a good thousand people were boxed in. Yet the scenes of that night in July 2006 paled in comparison with what happened on the stands after Quttiboev had bagged it. Muscles bear-hugged me with such strength that I would have sworn that he was trying to collapse at least one of my lungs. From above it rained people. Apocalypto saw it all and leaped up to strangle us in an embrace, despite being three rows down and holding a drum. Everyone screamed and shouted things we could not understand, but we nonetheless piled in and yelled at the top of our lungs.
Halftime came soon after and, interval over, it was clear that one of the two teams had remained with their minds in the dressing room, if not straight into the bus and over to the hotel. That team was Pakhtakor Tashkent. Buxoro, instead, ran as if they had a new lease of life in their muscles. They failed time and again to score again, but it did not seem to be mattering too much for the boys on the stands, where the atmosphere was joyous. More and more supporters were having half of their faces painted blue à la William Wallace with felt tip pens; when the drums reached a feverish rhythm worthy of Heart of Darkness, which was pretty often, more and more launched into dervish dances. Some might say that I joined in on the fun, but in the absence of conclusive video proof we shall never know. We even got a couple of Mexican waves to do a round of the whole stadium.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Time passed quickly, punctuated by cramps and yellow cards issued like confetti by the referee. Yet there still was time for one last hurrah. Tashkent was on the offensive, trying to find a way to equalise; Buxoro, though, had all but parked the bus in front of the goal and offered no clear avenues. Round and round did the ball go, shuffled between players in a tiki-taka that had neither the skill nor the inspiration of Barcelona’s. Lobanov, Tashkent’s goalie, had advanced to support the operations, loitering around the ¾ line. He received a rather half-baked back pass, which he had to stop. As he looked up to see who should he lob the hot potato to, he received the rather unwelcome news that one Buxoro attacker had appeared out of nowehere and was heading, in a whirlwind of arms and legs, towards him.
What followed reminded me of Del Piero’s second goal against Germany in the 2006 semis. Lobanov tries desperately to rid himself of the ball in a move awkward even by David Seaman standards; the ball obviously gets intercepted. The Buxoro forward dribbles the hapless Lobanov, then opens to a colleague who, at the head of a small army of pursuing Tashkent players, is running for dear life towards the goal. The man – in the confusion I could not read his number – then discharged a Hellfire missile which, with surgical precision, slammed precisely into the plums of the only Pakhtakor defender who had managed to return in time to protect the net. As the hero wriggled on the pitch in the grip of an indescribable pain, we discussed what tools were going to be employed to beat Lobanov once back in the hotel: wet towels or the rather harsher soap bars plonked into socks?
The end came soon thereafter. We indulged in some well-deserved celebrations, with an Uzbek rendition of the Viking Thunder Clap of Icelandic fame, and then it was time to go. We hugged, shook hands and smiled with our new friends, whom we never would have met had it not been for football. I waved one last time at Muscles, who replied by brandishing his club high above his head, and then it was really time to defile out, walking north into the night, towards the hotel. Tomorrow night we would leave Bukhara, this city of great history and proud heritage, but first and foremost of great, great people.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
As we left the arena we could still hear one choir rising from the parking lot, where a fleet of minibuses and marshrutkas waited to bring the fans home. Bo-kha-ra. Bo-kha-ra. Bo-kha-ra. It felt, and I sure as hell wanted it, as if it was never going to end.
Posted in Central Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

A sunset over Po-i-Kalyon

Showcasing Bukhara must be the easiest job ever, or so I thought with the clarity that suddenly comes when you’re into your third pint-sized bottle of Portland beer (the fact that an Uzbek brew had the picture of a clipper boat and a light house not becoming any less amusing as the days went by). But back to the view.
It was our last evening in Bukhara and, whilst originally I felt ambivalent about staying there for so long – Khiva, Kokand, Termez were all tantalisingly close – I now regretted leaving at all. We had a shaky beginning, Bukhara and I (trading insults with a cabbie outside the mausoleum of a Sufi holy man isn’t exactly an auspicious way to get things off), but by that evening she – because it’s a lady, you see – had crept under my skin and had lodged itself firmly into my heart. To know why, you just need to read on; unless you’re one of those fellows who’d rather go to Nashville* “because it’s safer”, despite it having a murder rate almost three times higher than Uzbekistan’s, I think you’ll agree with me.
Tell me, for instance, how not to stroll around Po-i-Kalyon, or by the walls of the Ark, at sunset and not to agree with an awesomely-named fellow called Fitzroy Maclean, who in 1939 confessed that “I could have spent months in Bukhara, seeking out fresh memories of the prodigious past, mingling with the bright crowds in the bazaar, or simply idling away my time under the apricot trees in the clear warm sunlight of Central Asia”.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Bukhara steals breaths by the bucketful with its party pieces, its memories of the golden age of Abdullah Khan, its architectural marvels inspired by Persia by way of Herat, Afghanistan. A sequence of dazzling madrassas and gorgeous mosques whose names -Siddikyon, Mir-i-Arab, Nadir Divan-Beg – roll on Bukharans’ tongues like aged cognac.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
But it’s also a place of unexpected quirks. An eight-hundred-year old minaret, decorated with Zoroastrian motifs, that can claim to have caused none other than Genghis Khan to drop his hat. Or the mausoleum of a man, dead for more than 1,000 years, who had become the founding father of neighbouring Tajikistan even without having been born, or having spent any significant amount of time, there. (Just don’t go telling it around in Dushanbe). Or perhaps the gate house of a madrasa, built around the time when Europe started wearing starched collars and talk about electromagnetism. Some would call Chor minor old-fashioned. To me, it’s classy.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
But the thing that, in the end, will really get you, that will haul you onboard like the harpoon of those long-line fishermen over on Discovery Channel, will be the unexpected surprises that Bukhara will randomly dip out of her pocket and toss on the ground, like breadcrumbs for you to follow to her trap. It’ll be a Jewish community who lived in a particular side of downtown for more than 2,000 years before relocating, pretty much en masse, to Queens; it’ll be a small photography museum, whence you’ll depart with more postcards than you’ve ever bought in a decade. It’ll be hand-written Korans, hidden passageways, delicate domes, shops sprouting in the least expected places. Glimpses of treasures that will make you suddenly realise – probably as you down the third beer on your last evening – that you might as well be spending a year here, but it won’t ever be enough.
And this is before we even got to talk about the people.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
*Nothing personal with Nashville; it could’ve been Chicago, Vegas or LA and the numbers would’ve been even more compelling. It’s just that Nashville is the latest addition to London’s as far as non-stop flights go, and it has sent my English friends and colleagues in a state of, well, pryapistic excitement.

Posted in Central Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

And then I was invited to tea.

Bukhara the holy, Bukhara the saint, Bukhara the erudite, Bukhara the city where light floods from the ground up and not from the heavens down. Or perhaps the Bukhara, in the words of traveller and linguist Ármin Vámbéry, ”whose whole society was crippled by boundless hypocrisy, crass ignorance, drunk in the swamp of immorality”?
Which one was true? The city that boasted 150 madrassahs at Abdullah Khan’s time, or the decadent shadow of that self, described by the Great Game players, where people were slowly poisoned by the filthy water they drank and abandoned themselves to “all the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah”, in the words of a German-Russian doctor called Eversmann that managed to wriggle his way in?
It’s probably both, for it’s not that hard to change and evolve – or regress, depending on one’s opinions – when you’ve been around so long to have been already a few centuries old when Alexander the Great rode into town on horseback. Bukhara has been erudite, saintly, lurid, decadent and positively promiscuous, all before some 1970s rockstar carved a career out of having been the one to explore all that.
Today, perhaps, it’s Bukhara the peaceful. Crocodiles of bus tourists are shepherded around the handful of pedestrianised, restored roads linking all the major sights. Despite all my idiosyncrasies about going where other camera-toting people go, especially when in mobs, we joined in. Yet, after having sampled these sights to our heart’s content – Labi Hauz, Po-i-Kalyon, the Ark, Chor Minor – it was hard not to yearn for more, not to swim into that sea of tightly knitted roofs that stretch from landmark to landmark, within the boundaries once described by destroyed city walls. So, one day in our permanence I set off, a glass bottle of Borjomi bouncing about in my backpack.
I began easily enough, choosing a side road leading south from Sarrafon bazaar. It led past a small square where schoolchildren played at the end of a day’s lessons: boys set up an impromptu football match – their backpacks acting as goalposts, whilst girls settled for some sort of dodgeball. We were doing the same when I was their age, I thought with a smile.
A labyrinth of alleys unravelled from there. I had a hand-drawn map in my notebook, but it was by now useless, so I navigated using whatever landmark I could find or, more simply, rambled at random. A dusty corner store, complete with sun-bleached advert for RC Cola. A sighting of Kalyon Minaret, glowing in the blue cloudless sky. The dome of a nearby mosque, casting a shadow so neat to look almost unreal. It felt as if I’d walked into a Sicilian village on a sleepy summer afternoon: nothing moved, nothing stirred in the heat; no cars honked, no engine whirred and the only vehicles I saw were parked, looking abandoned, covered in dust.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
As I ventured deeper in the streets, building started changing. Baked bricks slowly gave way to the millennial tradition of mud walls, held together by a framework of wood. Thick planks, meticulously planed, ran parallel to the ground, above the stone foundations: I’d been told it was a trick to collect all the moisture and humidity from the above structure. Homes were in various statuses of upkeep: some shone, thanks to majolica-tiled driveways, metal gates enthusiastically sprayed with glitter and new windows still decorated with the adverts of the companies that’d made them. Some were a little worse for wear: old, wooden windows painted blue, clear runoff signs where rainwater had ruined the mud, thus needing a new coating (much like the Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük, older than Jericho, were our ancestors lived 9,000 years ago). And in some other cases, decay had firmly taken hold.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
A mosque was as clear an example of this latter stage than any other place. The dome sagged under the weight of many winters without repair, surmounted – like all the other abandoned places I’d so far seen – by a massive, and empty, stork nest. Inside, a chair lied next to the cenotaph of an unnamed holy man, in the shadow of a tree. A door closed the access to the mosque, but spying through a crack I caught glimpses of nude walls, rubble and detritus where prayers once were proffered. Dust particles danced in silent Brownian motion in the beams of light flooding in from the windows. The only thing that wasn’t sagging, cracking or askew was the carved pole, terminating with an outstretched metal hand. The horsehair banner dangled in the faint breeze.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Bukhara’s backroads were quiet but not deserted. Men and women sat on tiny stools outside their gates, lifting hands to their hearts and wishing me “As salaam alaikum” as I passed. A woman, wrapped in a kaleidoscope of colours fashioned into a dress, flashed a smile as she taught a toddler to walk. Two children were definitely more adventurous, chirping “Hello” to this goofy foreigner only to then hide behind their giggling mother. An impromptu game of peek-a-boo then started as we walked down the same road, ending only when we arrived at their home. I continued on, their laughs echoing from behind the gate, in a courtyard I could only guess was there. In that moment, it struck me how different this all was from London, where one needed permission from the other parents to film his own child at his sports’ day.
Every now and then I’d chance upon some place I knew, for I’d written a note about it in my book. Khoresm ko’chasi was one such place, even though I somehow failed to find what made it noteworthy. Yet, it was only 20 meters long. Thinking that, perhaps, the road sneaked around I took one corner, then another. Then, to my surprise, the road sort of… ended.
I stood on the edge of a man-made cliff. To my right the path continued, losing itself in a stream of goat trails leading to somebody’s houses; far ahead in the distance I could distinguish the renovated beauty of Zargon bazaar, with visitors buzzing in and out like bees, and the café of the German lady, Gertrude or some other oldfashioned name. But the behemoth to my right was rather more eye-catching, and what had happened to it even more so.
Somebody had amputated Abdul Aziz Madrassah’s east wing. A road, descending deep into a trench, had cut through the madrassah’s flank and in the nearby buildings, much like a loggers’ trail would do to a tropical rainforest. A venerably old truck dived into it, belching exhaust smoke and dust. I followed it after a while, sinking deeper and deeper into Bukhara’s strata of history.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The road had been driven through the students’ cells, opening them to the outside world. Frescoed walls eyed me accusingly, the small niches the used to hold books – so similar to the ones we saw in Jewish houses now turned into hotels – now lying empty but for dust or the occasional stray brick. Why had the road been opened? I didn’t know, and had no one to ask. I emerged on the other side amidst stacks of bricks, evidently salvaged from the madrassah. I picked one up, flat and thick, sensing the centuries of history it contained, a time-capsule from the past, moulded and baked by somebody since long turned into dust. I weighted it up in my hand, and then returned it to its place.
A little later I stumbled into something unexpected: a freshly paved road, large enough for two cars to drive abreast. Samarkand ko’chasi. On the corner, a guzar, or neighbourhood mosque, glistened in its post-refurbishment splendour. I entered the courtyard, surprised to see that it hadn’t been turned into a shop, or museum on carpet-weaving, but had remained a place of worship. Two men sat under the portico, whilst another two – at least judging by the fake-leather loafers left on the shoe-rack by the entrance – prayed inside. The guys chilling out smiled and saluted. One of them introduced himself as Michael, and showed me around. When I mentioned how surprising it was to see one mosque still doing its original function, he smiled and commented “This masjid always was a masjid. Even in Soviet times. People came in at night”.
I returned to the street after having shaken hands with Michael, thinking about the Islamic renaissance that was going on here. Many, especially in the media, felt threatened about it, but I didn’t feel that way. In fact, come think of it, I was surprised to find myself more troubled by the fact of seeing so many mosques turned into shops peddling tat.
Samarkand ko’chasi continued on as I ruminated about it. Corner stores dotted the right-hand side, each complete with the sun-baked carcass of an old soft drink vending machine that still had a slot for coins. Metal money had been an early victim of the hyper-inflation that led, and kept on leading, people to go shopping with plastic bags filled with cash. I stopped again soon after, distracted by the relic of a madrassah that was quietly crumbling away on the other side of the road.
It had to be quite a thing in its prime, whenever that had been. Perhaps not as grand as Mir-i-Arab, but definitely a worthy adversary of the one built by Ulug Beg, or of the ones in Labi Hauz, I thought at first sight. Was there a sort of a race to get the best students, back in XV century Bukhara, much like there is today in the Anglo-Saxon world? Still, whatever the truth, its prime had come and gone a long time ago. The front gate opened on a parvis of rubble and dust; the wooden portals had been lifted a long time ago, pitifully replaced by two large sheets of rusting metal, left slightly ajar. No sign was hung on the walls, prohibiting access, and there was no one around to tell me off. Moving in what I thought was a silent and sly way, but knowing that I looked absurd, I slipped in.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The first mental image I had of the courtyard was of old, B&W photos of Stalingrad. Or Dresden. Or Berlin after the Red Army’s lead diet. The courtyard stood filled with rubble and rubbish – bricks, metal pipes, rusting sheets of iron, two tyres, old shoes, discarded implements. All around eyed the old cells of the students, now a masterclass of decay and abandonment. Staircases ran upstairs, tilted at an angle of 20 degrees, whilst the upper floors had been reduced only to the arches of the door frames, the rest having been pillaged or spirited away. A modest attempt at reconstruction had started, with new industrial bricks being erected on one of the wings, before even that had been abandoned. The madrassah, I reflected, was a worthy metaphor of Bukhara’s history. An origin of study, enlightenment, culture, then a long period of decline as the student ranks dwindled, ideas dried up and innovators fled, chased away by a wind of parochialism, xenophobia and obscurantism. Then neglect and decay.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
I walked back to Samarkand ko’chasi, wondering, after all this, what defined Bukhara today. The enlightenment was the past, and so was the decay and the oblivion. What was Bukhara now, and what was going to define it tomorrow? What sort of adjective would travel writers and journos use, much in the same way that Fergana valley is “fertile” and 1960s London “swinging”? I had originally settled for “peaceful”, but it didn’t taste satisfying.
Suddenly a cry distracted me from my label-making thoughts. “Mister, mister”. I looked around, then realised that the call came from high up. Above me a balcony opened: a mosque, its portico blackened by time. Framed between the ceiling and the parapet were two heads, one with a skullcap and the other without, both beaming with smiles so golden to be the envy of a pirate. “Chai, mister, chai!” they said, waving me in.
I smiled and accepted the invite to tea. As I was climbing the stairs to the portico where, sitting on a topchan, I’d be drinking tea, chatting and watching this group of mates play backgammon for a few hours, it occurred to me. After Bukhara the learned, Bukhara the saintly, Bukhara the corrupted came Bukhara the friendly.

Posted in Asia, Central Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

The whistling man of Registan.

Denying it would be pointless, and I won’t: I am an unabashed Morricone fan and – the two go hand in hand, really – an Alessandroni devotee. Whilst I appreciate that Morricone’s fame is somehow a given, I’m aware that the latter mightn’t enjoy the same level of awareness amongst the public. In fact, who the hell is Alessandroni, I hear you say?
Well, Alessandroni is none other than the Whistle. Remember the theme of For a Fistful of Dollars? Or the one of For a Few Dollars More? Well, he’s the one who did them. He also whistled in every other song that the Maestro penned for Sergio Leone, to be used in those films that Morricone loathes being called ‘spaghetti western’ and so I shan’t. Alessandroni was the proud owner of that crystalline whistle. Not for nothing did Fellini nickname him Fischio, Italian for whistle.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really thinking about Alessandroni, that Sunday in Samarkand. I wasn’t, for otherwise I’d be thinking about the westerns, or the fact that he’d retired to Namibia, where he died last year, but it all changed when we got on the viewing balcony that stretches before the mighty Registan.
But let’s start from the beginning.
Registan, or Registon as is written all across Samarkand – itself better known to its inhabitants as Samarqand, I hasten to add – is the pulsating heart of this city straddling the rich flatland watered by the Zerafshan river. Meaning “sandy place” in Farsi, it can only be compared to Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan square; a magnet, an irresistible bit of sticky paper upon which us flies cannot resist landing.
We walked to Registan through the dusty roads leading to the pedestrianised heaven of the erstwhile Toshkent road, now renamed – together with another good chunk of the city’s infrastructure – after the recently deceased father of the nation, Islam Karimov. The air was saturated by a cocktail of leaking methane, dust and unburnt petrol. Men squatted in the shadows, saluting our passing with polite calls of “As-salaam alaikum” to which we responded in kind, right hand touching the heart. In the sky, preying on the flying insects, were dozens of chirpy swallows. The blue dome of Bibi Khanum mosque loomed high above us.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Karimov Ko’chasi was a playground. Throngs of people paced it up and down or cruised on the shuttling electric buses, which they boarded in a tempest of shouts and gold-toothed grins. We were the only Westerners not moving in the close cohorts of the guided bus tours and, as such, we were ripe for selfies. Covering 400 meters meant posing for at least thirty pictures with men, women, teenagers and toddlers. Glad of our newfound celebrity we happily obliged to each and every one of them, for everyone seemed genuinely giddy with the excitement at the prospective of posing with those exotic Italians. Go figure.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The Registan is one of those places that, annoyingly, magazines define a “must see”. Despite that, it was indeed so. A large square, closed on one side by a gently descending staircase and, on the other three, by some of the finest specimen of Islamic architecture ever to be designed by the followers of the Prophet. Three madrassahs, all similar yet different; Ulug Beg’s own; Shir Dor, the lion-bearing, covered in animal mosaics despite the requirement to portray only abstract art, and Tilya-Kori, the gilded. Seventy years of State atheism had turned them in shops for touristy tack, but their beauty remained undeniable.
A viewing galleria, or a balcony if you will, had been built for the advantage of those like us who wanted to gaze, mouth open wide, at this marvel to their hearts’ content. And there, you see, is where the memory of Alessandro ‘Fischio’ Alessandroni returned with a vengeance.

Entrance to Registan, you see, is not free. A rather forgettable $2 is levied on the tourist – possibly less for locals. As it allowed access to some veritable marvels and, we suspected, guaranteed their upkeep, we and the overwhelming majority of visitors were quite happy to pay the due. But some evidently weren’t and, out of protest or stinginess, decided to bum their way into the hallowed grounds of the square. On that Sunday when we posed for more photos than we could humanly count, a few tried to sneak their way in. But none succeeded, for Fischio’s true scion would not let them.
Cops, in Uzbekistan, come in two guises. There are those in green, with a slightly amusing képi on their heads, are the most common ones. Often rotund, seldom jovial, equipped with a small handgun hanging from their side as an afterthought, they don’t seem to inspire too much fear. The rather more truculent Milliy Gvardiya, instead, are designed – with their black, utilitarian fatigues, lean bodies and stern looks – to instil a healthy respect for the authority. Our Fischio was a member of the former, but his granitic resolve would’ve earned him the black uniform of the latter.
Armed only with a metal whistle, his stern looks and a penchant for Power Rangers-style moves, he alone patrolled the south side of Registan. Just a twine, strewn a mere 30 cm from the ground, marked the border. An open invite for freeloaders, but Fischio had other ideas.
He hid in plain sight. Melting away amongst the throngs of happy campers posing for photos, he patrolled in search for trespassers and, as soon as he saw one, a whistle, as unforgiving as Clint Eastwood’s gun, would pierce through the air. He would then materialise there, waving back the audacious trespassers.
More and more attempted; sometimes, one or two would have a go at it in one corner, whilst others, profiting from his distraction, would leg it from the opposite side. Yet it was all in vain. Again, the whistle would rise, for Fischio saw all and had mercy for none.
 One youth did what we were waiting for and, having been found, approached our hero with the consummated savoir faire of the man who knew what opened doors at these latitudes. Golden handshakes. Brown envelopes. Baksheesh. Standing on the balcony, alert as meerkats, we unequivocally saw the glimmer, awkwardly masqueraded in a bear hug, of a few 5,000 sum banknotes. Baksheesh indeed. Would Fischio fall for it?
We shouldn’t have worried. A family of daytrippers blocked our view but, as soon as they moved, we saw Fischio doing his best Pierluigi Collina personification as he invited the smooth operator, now covered in shame, to the cashier.
Us, and the madrassahs, exhaled a collective sigh of relief.
Posted in Asia, Central Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Postcard from Uzbekistan.

I cannot, writing straight away, give you an idea of this marvel. If I were to thread the words, mosaics, pediments, spandrels, bas-reliefs, niches, enamels, corbels, all on a string in a sentence, the picture would still be incomplete. It is strokes of the brush that are wanted, not strokes of the pen. Imagination remains abashed at the remains of the most splendid architecture left to us by Asiatic genius.
Jules Verne

 

This quote is what I wrote on a postcard from a land where handshakes are firm, roads lead to unexpected finds and people seem to be just waiting to welcome you in. In the meantime, from the Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand, this is all… for now.

 

Posted in Asia, Central Asia, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Ever wondered what do those London neighbourhoods are like?

Have you ever flown into London Heathrow airport?
Unless you’re arriving from the West, thereby ruining the Queen’s sleep over in Windsor (because, like a particularly loud American once said within earshot of yours truly, Why have they built a castle next to an airport?), you’ll be spending the last minutes of your journey bobbing along the winds over the city, cruising from East to West. Those of you that are sat on the right-hand side will be treated to quite a spectacle: the palisade of skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, tailed closely by those in the City, with the Shard south of the river, then Tower Bridge, Westminster, the Eye and the big green blob of Hyde Park. Even at night, even if you don’t like London, it’s a sight to behold.

Then, between these lovely views and the bump on the runway and the usual Welcome to London Heathrow announcement, what remains is a seemingly endless expanse of, well, stuff. Mile after mile of houses, roads, train lines, green commons and the brown river, interspersed by the odd recognisable landmark. The Royal Albert. Westfield. Charing Cross hospital. Southall’s Gurdwara, if you’re Sikh. But everything else, well, what about it? You fly over it, then roll past it on the Piccadilly Line (or on the Heathrow Express if you don’t value your money too much), and as far as you’re concerned, it could very well be another planet.
Ever wondered what’s out there?
Well, let’s take for instance the corner of West London that has been my home for the past five years. If you’ve flown into Heathrow, you’ve seen it. Yes, we don’t score too high in terms of imposing landmarks, especially if you consider that the Overground overpass is one of the tallest points.
But we make up for it with a nice promenade on the Thames that comes with roaming dogs as a standard and is pretty much guaranteed to be a mud inferno, worthy of Passchendaele, between September and May, with frequent forays well into June.
But rest assured, it very much isn’t Little Britain here. Folks voted 75% Remain, here, and the average Joe won’t have a problem admitting that Somerset brie is just a pale mockery of the real dairy gold. Perhaps it’s because we’ve got places like the Business Park, built by none other than Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, who by they way used to be housed a little downriver in Hammersmith, before they went mainstream and relocated in the City, perched atop the Cheesegrater like a bunch of owls with pink trousers. But we’re not bitter, because they’ve left us with a beautiful Business-park-cum-Virgin-gym-and-Japanese-garden where we can work for oil prospectors, big dairy conglomerates, Saudi NGOs, TV outlets and, oddly enough, even the Pokémon company. Whatever they do.

So, here it is what you’re missing. Pleasant, perhaps a tad boring, confidently florid and moderately at ease with itself. Certainly neither artsy nor quirky. Until you meet the family living a few roads down from my flat, that is.

Yep. In my rather nondescript neighbourhood there’s space for a home entirely covered in mosaic including a mermaid, an octopus, a few skulls, a kind of Kali Goddess, Hokusai’s Great Wave and a denunciation of capital punishment (see the Keep the faith heart?), inhabited by a quirky family who I heard playing great acid jazz at 2 AM during a house party. And everyone else seem to be just happy that they are around.
Posted in London, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

In memory of Mr Voghera.

We’d parked our car in corso Matteotti. Under a fastidious rain we walked, rather aimlessly, towards via Roma. My feeling of despondency, due to the realisation that I’d started forgetting the streets of a city I’d lived in for five years, was compounded by the irritating double standards of the city council, for whom Saturday was a non-working day as far as public offices were concerned, but damn well wasn’t when it came to paying for parking.
We were walking along one of those streets built in gentler times when nobody checked that the city wasn’t going to break the 3% ratio between deficit and local GDP. A double row of trees. Ornate buildings that, with a healthy dose of imagination, could pass for Parisian. Big slabs of stone acting as pavements. A Juvarran splendour, drenched in rainwater. Amongst all this understated opulence – not for nothing Turin’s official motto was esageruma nen, thou shalt not exaggerate – something was out of place. Something on the pavement glittered gold.

Here lived
GINO VOGHERA
Born 1889
Arrested 18.3.1944
Deported 2.8.1944
Auschwitz
Murdered
A Stolperstein. Literally “stumbling blocks”, they are little brass plaques, no larger than the average porphyry cobblestone that is used in so many Italian cities, made by German artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate the victims of Nazism. Each of them tells the name, and brief story, of one life taken by an ideology that thought some men worthier than others. Polite, unobtrusive, they are a growing army, 66,000 strong, sticking out of sidewalks, doorways and alleys all around Europe, from Spain to Russia, from Norway to Greece, shyly pointing out that, once, one man, one woman, one child lived here. I’d seen one before in Erzsébetváros, Budapest, but didn’t know that they existed in Italy as well. And, frankly, why not; whilst it’s true that Mr Demnig dedicated some to Italian soldiers deported to Germany following the Armistice, it’s not as if we’d ever been squeaky clean when it came to the main victims of the Nazi murderous folly.
To see how dirty we were, one just had to look at Trieste’s main square, piazza Unità d’Italia. There’s a plaque, there, to commemorate the time when Mussolini soiled its memory by announcing, there, the publishing of the Leggi per la difesa della razza, or Laws for the defence of the race. It was September 18th, 1938. It’d been less than two years since Rome had gone to bed with Berlin and finally Mussolini, who had at that time a Jewish lover, decided to give in to his new best friend’s prodding.
Banned were marriages between Jews and “Aryans”. Jews couldn’t employ “Aryans”. The civil service, public companies, banks and insurers couldn’t employ Jews and if they had, they had to fire them. Jews couldn’t be journalists, teachers, directors of universities, couldn’t serve in the army, couldn’t own businesses of public relevance or properties above a certain value. Jewish kids could attend non-Jewish schools only if there weren’t enough of them to set up their own school; finally families were banned from certain, high-end, shops. Ninety-six university professors had to give up their jobs, some of them fleeing overseas. Italy lost two future Nobel prize laureates such as Franco Modigliani (economy) and Enrico Fermi (physics; Fermi wasn’t Jew, but his wife was), and countless more smart people.
At the start of hostilities, in 1940, internment camps for Jews were set up. Some 40,000 were placed in large tent-cities, under armed supervision. At that time Italy hadn’t joined Hitler’s obsession for a final solution, and no deportations to Germany had taken place; in fact, in several occasions the Italian army had refused to give up Jews, in France and in the Balkans, to the SS. This was all to change, though, come the September 1943 Armistice.
Whilst the South – and the largest camps of interned Jews – were being liberated by the advancing Allied forces, upon the North descended the German army. Hitler had long harboured doubts on his southern ally, and his army had prepared a plan, Operation Achse, to invade Italy. A puppet regime, the RSI – acronym for Repubblica Sociale Italiana, Italian Social Republic – was born, with Mussolini once again at its head, albeit only nominally. Here, the gloves were off: on November 11th, ’43, Mussolini announced that Jews were “an enemy nationality”. Extermination was firmly on the cards.
The first mass arrests had already begun, notably in Rome on October 16th, but from December 1st every prefecture got the order to arrest every single Jew in their territory. More than 8,000 were captured and imprisoned, to be then transferred in Italy’s lagers: Borgo San Dalmazzo, Fossoli, the Risiera di San Sabba, and Bolzano’s transit camp. Thence, freight trains would bring the Italian Jews to Poland. 6,800 made the journey, only 837 came back. None of these camps were mentioned in my high school history book.
Who was Gino Voghera? we wondered looking at his humble Stolperstein under the rain of corso Matteotti, himself a victim of Fascism.
Voghera is a town in Lombardy, in that bit of the region straddling south of the Po river and thus obviously called Oltrepo. It’s one of those places for which, in my region, the neologism paesone is used: not a village anymore, but not yet a city. And Gino? A rather old-fashioned name, quite apt for a man I imagined wearing a tie every day, smart trousers, a thin moustache and thinning hair combed backwards with the help of a little Brylcreem. I could see him exiting the gate of that smart building in corso Matteotti, back then named corso Oporto, to run some errands or for a quick glass of bicerin. Until that day of March, 74 years almost to the day from the moment where we found his Stolperstein. No, Gino Voghera hadn’t had the time for a quick bicerin then.
I had a mental image, but who was, really, Gino Voghera?

I did what anyone else would’ve done, and that was Googling his name. The first hit, from the CDECCentro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea, a foundation collating and cataloguing recent Jewish documentation and history – showed a rather dapper man in  uniform.
Gino Voghera, a short description said, had been a military man. He served in the Army as an Artillery lieutenant during the Great War, working for the State for 10 years as a soldier. He’d been born in Padova, Veneto, in 1889, son of Benedetto Voghera and Anna Salom. He had a brother, Ferruccio, and was married with one Gaetana Nejrotti, a surname that couldn’t possibly be more Torinese not even if it tried.
He was arrested in March 1944, the Stolperstein said that. What I didn’t know was that he was sent to the city prison, called Le Nuove, still standing on the corner between corso Vittorio and corso Castelfidardo. The jail is now a museum and offices, I’d been there. Thence, he was moved to Fossoli and, finally, on August 2nd 1944, he climbed aboard train no. 14. On August 6th, four days later, the train pulled over at Auschwitz. Gino Voghera never got out. So didn’t his brother Ferruccio. Of the 152 Jews that the CDEC recorded being on train no. 14, only 11 returned.
Benito Mussolini, on a day in November 1943, called the Italian Jews “enemies”. This enemy, as Gunter Demnig’s Stolperstein showed, was a 50-something man called Gino, who had spent 10 years of his life serving the very state that was to betray him.
Posted in Italy, Piemonte, Random memories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

The night raid to Billingsgate.

Shopping for food in the UK is often not, for yours truly, a joyous experience, and this is due to the utter lack of variety. Honest, there’s more individuality in a pool of cloned cells than in UK’s supermarkets. Even the poshest Waitrose or M&S will peddle the same cuts of meat, same vegetables, same fruit juice flavours as the rest of the nation’s supermarkets. And nowhere is this fact more dishearteningly true than in the cheese and fish sections. Every week, without fail, I’d be staring at the usual display of six varieties of Cheddar. Or at sad circles of tuna meat, as wide as a tea plate, submerged in non-recyclable plastic and somewhat optimistically called steak. Every week I’d be staring at them, clutching the handle of my shopping trolley, and sighing. If only.
The cheese issue has its workarounds – mainly under the form of smuggling from abroad – but I’d long been struggling to find a workable solution to the fish problem. Every shop, supermarket and fishmonger sold the same produce, so much so that I’d become half-convinced that fish swam in the big blue sea either in breaded rectangles or already turned into kippers.
After a few fruitless attempts at turning the tide, my cogitations had reached a low point. It seemed that, in the capital of this island nation, no fish was to be found but the one that was served in batter with a side of mushy peas. But, as it so often happens, one casual Friday chat changed everything. It happened, obviously in hindsight, where all the best ideas germinate: the office kitchenette.
Kev isn’t his real name, but his dear mother made a mistake when he didn’t call him so. If there was a prototype for the ideal Kev – professional tea drinker, wheeler and dealer, knew everybody, wouldn’t pronounce the “r” at the end of a word not even under duress – he was it. Anyway, Kev was close to retirement, crossing out the days before he could ship himself down to Spain, so he was always game for a chat and killing time. I don’t quite remember how we got there, but on one quiet Friday afternoon, the floorplate barely half full, echoing only of keys being pressed, we got talking about how much of a tosser his old man was, and actually how much of a tosser was everyone who lived in his old man’s neighbourhood. To make his point, Kev mentioned the time when the Luftwaffe bombed the chip shop.
I’ll never, no matter how hard I’ll try, be able to give justice to Kev’s accent, posture, infectious humour and incredible sense of theatre, so I’ll just summarise the story. It’s the Blitz, and Kev’s old man – still a few decades away from being such, I guess – makes a dash for the bomb shelter together with the rest of the community. There they sit, a community of tossers all huddled together, whilst outside Göring is busy renovating their cobbled stone streets and mews, one bomb at the time. There they sit, eyes bulging out of their sockets, until a quiet moment in the fracas. The siren for the all clear hasn’t been heard yet, but being they tossers, they ignore it. One of them, the gutsiest of them all, goes up and steps into a scene worthy of Godzilla, if only it’d already existed. The streets are flattened. Buildings are on fire. The glow of the torched gasworks paints the night sky crimson. Faced by this Dantesque scene of disaster, our gutsy tosser has only one message to relay to the rest of the gang still sitting in the shelter. And there could be only one message, in fact.
“They bombed the chip shop”.
They all erupted out at once, sod the bombs, sod the Luftwaffe, sod the Blitz and the raid still ongoing. They all popped out of the shelter like corks out of champers bottle and, Kev recounted as we both chuckled, stood like the bunch of muppets they were, in a street reduced to smithereens, watching the big black hole where their beloved chippy used to be.
As the story ended and we both reluctantly returned to the inevitability of our desks, I asked Kev “Whereabouts was the chippy then?” to which he replied, somehow to my surprise since I knew he was a Brentford fan, that it was in Shadwell. “It was a good chippy, you see, because it was so close to Billingsgate fish market, which at the time was still near Monument. But it could’ve been fish from the Thames for all they knew”.
A fish market.
Fast forward a couple of months, precisely in the midst of the coldest March on record, I wake up at 3AM on Saturday morning. The irony of it doesn’t escape me – a few years back this was the time for me to go to bed – but if I want to escape yet another sad moment at the shops, this is it. Billingsgate opens at 4 and, you see, effectively runs out of the good stuff by 6. Yeah, the early bird catches the worm and all that. This isn’t the kind of farmers’ market that soccer moms would comfortably drive to after a good workout at the Bikram Yoga.
Night Tube is a blessing and, at this time, is also eerily quiet. Green Park station could feature in a Dario Argento film but only a small mouse, and not some vampire or bloodthirsty serial killer, crosses my path.
Canary Wharf is, surprisingly, a lot livelier. Two dapper men argue, in Italian with thick Roman accents, about whether a flat on sale for six hundred grands could go for three-and-three-quarter paid on the spot. The discussion escalates and, as I leave Canada Square, I can still hear their voices booming on the silent glass façades, one wondering if the other had spent too much on whores and the other replying not to worry, for his mother was giving discounts.
I walk briskly towards the river, passing the softly lit lobbies of many of finance’s big names. Fitch, Barclays, KPMG, Citi, Ernst & Young all parade beside me, deserted but for the security men, silent sentinels behind their desks, and the odd cleaning team. Almost without fail, they all are black.
After a roundabout the road swerves to the left, dancing on tiptoe over a canal and then precipitating towards another roundabout – decorated with a rather useless sculpture of a multi-branched traffic light – and an overpass. Floodlights illuminate a parking lot covered in white vans, whilst a squat building, styled in a way that could’ve been defined modern in 1982, welcomes a steady stream of men in overcoats and fork-lifts. Billingsgate Market.
Photography is allowed only if communicated in advance, and I hadn’t, so I stow my camera away, nod to the three officers of the City Constabulary standing outside and, gingerly, step into the place that I didn’t think existed in London.
Billingsgate Market is a rectangle of red bricks with a lime-green floor that glitters under the powerful white lights shining from the tubular structure of the roof. A cacophony, a white noise of sloshing water, voices and mechanical noises buzzes in the background. Details of faded yellow dash in front of my eyes. Stores line the walls, and three double rows of stalls run for the entire length of the building. Rows of Styrofoam boxes stretch to the end of perspective, bulging with ice and fish.
A man moves a case containing lobsters, the crustaceans still waving antennae and pincers whilst he chats animatedly with another. A worker sprays water on the floor. Another slaps some more ice on a box of sea bass labelled Cyprus.  Voices echo across the hall, finalising purchases, discussing fish or simply chatting over cups of builder’s tea. The market is a fascinating mixture of ethnicities, so much so that I found myself as interested by the humanity populating Billingsgate as I am by the wares they were selling.
The stalls are decorated with names and simple slogans – If it swims, we sell it – and across them East London meets the Subcontinent, by way of the Caribbean. Rapid bursts of Indian languages mingle with that cockney parlance that I thought no longer existed in the Docklands, but evidently still does. Sure, those men had to relocate to those Kent satellite cities outside the M25, but here they are, dressed in white overalls and wellies, Stone Island beanie hats and gloves, cutting off every last syllable, skipping some middle completely, turning a’s into ai and calling me guv. “Tha’ll be a tennah guv” says one of them as he hands me a bag containing a kilo of yellowfin tuna.

The key ingredients of old English fish dishes – eels, cod, sole, turbot, whitebait – are out in force, joined in by mammoth salmons and trout so large that they’d need their own numberplates. Yet Billingsgate doesn’t just cater for the needs of Del Boy on a Lent Friday. There are tilapias; large, multi-coloured carps; snappers of all shapes, sizes and colours; brown groupers; entire dogfishes; and dozens of fillets of catfish, ordered in neat rows by a stall sitting under a series of flags – Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados – being inspected by two ladies in Ugg boots and pyjamas. A bucket of severed salmon heads was on sale for £1. “Good for ya stock mate” comments a young apprentice as he sees me eyeing quizzically. That, or if you are the Simpson’s mad cat lady.
As I order a few snappers and bass it dawns on me that, with the exception of a maniple of Central European men doing the rounds for restaurants and delis, I’m the only white punter. Everyone else was either East Asian or of African-Caribbean descent. The bearded man who hands me the purchase nods “Yes, this isn’t a place for the English. I ‘spose having to gut ‘em fishes isn’t wha’ them do on a Saturday, know wa’ mean?” I do. Not for nothing Sainsbury’s only has fish fingers.
Once home, I unload my gooey, fishy bounty and begin the gutting, cleaning and filleting business. Another cloudy, snowy day starts over London and, by the time I finish, I’m pretty knackered by all in all happy. Later in the day, having managed to wash off the smell of fish from my hands, I try to convey my sense of satisfaction to some friends, over beer, but fail. Still, all I had to do was to try a slice of the tuna, cooked briefly in coconut oil and lemon, to know that it’d been well worth it.
 Now, if I could solicit your help in naming this fishy fellow, I’d be much obliged. 
Posted in All things food, Europe, London, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments