This place is ancient. Countless generations lived here; even more passed through. Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans. Then Vandals, Goths, the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards. Germans and the Allied forces. All left a piece, a memento of their passage.
This is a city of convoluted alleys and of buildings in constant state of flux. A wing is refurbished while the other crumbles into a mouldy heap. A new window opens up in a decrepit wall. A fresh lick of paint over rusty iron.
This is also a place where old and new clash together in a deafening clangour, yielding results that satisfy no one. A city where the perfume of pastries just pulled from the oven fist-fight with the stink of horse piss. A city both filthy and spotless. A city where Brobdingnagian monstrosities tower above the old town like space invaders.
This is a place of contradictions, where street signs promise 40-day relief from sin in exchange for a prayer. This is a place intriguing, maddening, fascinating and frustrating at the same time.
From the comfortable flatness of London, Alpine trekking evokes images of paths meandering towards isolated peaks and a soft mattress of pine needles covering a path running through the woods. Not in the mountains surrounding my hometown, though.
Boulders make a natural staircase through the beech wood, ascending parallel to the rumbling torrent. A road has been dug through the valley that opens at the end of the treeline, but “road” is too much of a word. It’s a river of syenite, a stationary rock avalanche that somebody has half-heartedly arranged into something resembling a flat surface. The path, when I eventually got to it, turns out to be made exclusively of slabs of stone. There’s no bouncy padding of pine needles and leaves, here: only rocks, boulders and blocks of stone.
My brother and his other half, when unencumbered by their posse of Labradors, cover the 8 km and 1200 metres of elevation gain to Monte Camino in about two hours. Normal people, a sign said at the trail head, would cover the same distance in three. My aim, triggered by deluded self-respect, is to get there in under three. As I eat the peach that I’d promised myself as a halfway treat, I begin to question my optimism.
I press on, climbing up and down the boulders. From somewhere come the only words I know from an Irish song and my brain repeats them nonstop in a Paddy rendition of Auṃ maṇi padme hūṃ.
One two three four five
Hunt the Hare and turn her down the rocky road
And all the way to Dublin, Whack fol lol le rah!
And so it is that, repeating whack fol le rah like a possessed man, I scramble past the refuge, say hello to the early morning skyrunners – already on their way back and bouncing like goats from boulder to boulder – and land on top of Monte Camino. The time is 09.55 and I started two-and-a-half hours before.
I stand on the dichotomy between two worlds. Here are the lowlands, flat as a pizza and Vietnamese in their sequence of green rice paddies, humidity and clouds of mosquitoes.
There, instead, is the crystal-clear air of the mountains and a parade of icy peaks: the Monte Rosa massif. Mount Cervino, Matterhorn for the non-Italians, stands on its own with a cloud as a hat.
A Buddhist prayer flag flaps near the Catholic chapel. A Bernese shepherd dog is more interested in my bresaola sandwich than in my cuddles. Time to descend.
Hikers come in two types: those who find the way down a lot harder than the way up and those who are wrong. The ultimate StairMaster becomes trickier and more taxing as I negotiate it downwards, but there’s a constant stream of dogs to pat, of trekkers to say hello to and of things to photograph. A herd of cows is moving across a minuscule plateau with bovine placidity, guided by dogs commanded in dialect by the young shepherd.
A bee and a wanna-bee (I’ve been dying to write this for ages) pollinate some field flowers.
A cable car soars overhead.
Then I’m back in Oropa, where teenagers play violins and, somewhere, there’s a bar with Menabrea on tap and the Black Madonna smiles benevolently.
It’s taken three years, five revisions and a list of rejections as long as Donald Trump’s comb over, but at long last Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue is here – or, rather, on Amazon. Here’s a little bit of a description of what you can find, carefully crafted to read like a fireside chat (you can almost hear the log crackling in the background).
So, what is this book about?
Let’s start with a disappointment. It’s not a description of how a car GPS’ instruction would be sounding like in a world where the USSR never collapsed. What it is, instead, is a tribute to Central Asia. Half travelogue and half chronicle, Turn Left follows my journeys through the lands stretching between the Caspian Sea and the Taklamakan Desert. It tells the stories of those who lived – and live – there: from Alexander the Great to long distance truckers, my purpose with this book has been to describe ‘what it means’ to be Central Asian.
Why did you write it?
Delusions of grandeur aside, the idea of writing Turn Left matured with time. I’ve been fascinated with this land ever since I could remember, even though it took about 30 years before I finally landed there, on a snowy day in Almaty. That first visit triggered another and then another and so on, unveiling a reality that was a lot more complex and intriguing than the post-Soviet drivel I expected to find. Eventually, all these stories coalesced into a single mission, which is also the ‘spine’, if you will, of the book: to describe this region through the stories of its peoples. To try and tell what it means to be Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur and so on by letting the people describe their own realities, adding my experiences but without shoehorning my views into theirs.
Why should I read this instead of, say, Eat Pray Love?
To each his, or her, own I guess. But if you want to read something about relatively unknown places – and let’s face it, Tajikistan ain’t exactly Bali – and different peoples rather than the usual me-me-me that infests our lives, then this could be a good option. Plus, it’s got camels, archery, Uzbek footballers and goats. Lots of goats.
Where did you go?
The book documents a long series of rambles, a haphazard tour describing a loop with both ends in Almaty, a lovely city tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner of Kazakhstan. Inbetween are chapters dedicated to the Aral Sea, Bukhara, the Pamirs, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang: anywhere opportunities, world politics and interesting stories steered me.
What’s the main message of the book?
Turn Left wants to be a rebuke of today’s tendency to reduce everything to caricature, to a strapline, to a 280-character summary. Central Asia is particularly prone to this, being alternatively described as a swamp of dictatorship, a hotbed of terrorism or a dystopian hell-hole. All of that can be true, as well as it’s true that Central Asia is where I found genuine warmth, true hospitality and selfless generosity. To cut the story short, the one message that Turn Left wants to convey is that reality is a lot more complicated than it seems and that’s not only fine: it’s what makes the world interesting.
One last question: what happens when you turn left at Lenin’s statue?
Well, a lot of things! But, jokes aside, you end up in a dusty courtyard with a dog, an abandoned Russian car and a great view over the Pamirs. See here.
Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue is available as paperback and Kindle e-book on Amazon from today.
As soon as Jeff’s industrious elves (or, rather, a server in some Amazon Web Services data centre in suburban Leighton Buzzard) check that neither the Kindle nor the paperback are hiding contents unworthy of featuring on Jeff’s Big Shop in the Internet, Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue will be out. And, in case you’re wondering, this is how the cover looks like.
Animals can speak. And thanks to a nifty little app I downloaded, I now speak animal!
“Say what?” says the hind.
“Hey, mister Heron…” “What’s the matter, darling?”
“Have you seen those two bipeds? The one with the camera looks a bit weird”.
“Don’t you worry dear, I’ll keep an eye on him. He looks big, but I did Aikido in high school school. Just hide behind me”.
“See? that scared him off. Gotta go. Laters!”
“Can you change the background with Photoshop, George? I’m normally in Mauritius this time of the year but with all this lockdown nonsense I’m afraid I’ll be stuck in Twickers all summer. I know, ghastly”.
“Hey, sir! Want to see something cool?”
“Hey, I’m talking to you! Stop looking at those stupid ducks and check this out!”
“Look, look! No front legs!”
“Ho ho ho, I’m a biped! It’s funny, innit? I look like you!”
“Lend me your binoculars?”
The man did not turn round. But somebody else was impressed.
South-west of Richmond, sandwiched between that florid neighbourhood, the equally affluent borough of Twickenham (Twickers for those in the know), and the considerably grittier Kingston is Bushy Park.
I’ve lived in London for almost a decade, I’ve flown above it dozens of time per year, but I’ve never been there. But, hey: if ever there was a time to pay it a visit that’s now, when the explorable world has shrunk from the entire globe to just what we can reach on foot.
It’s not as if Bushy Park is next door, mind you. All things considered it’s a 30-km hike, which Better Half (who considers it the best park in London) will accomplish by bike; as for myself, given my rather conflictual relationship with cycling in the city, I’ll go old school.
Five AM on a Saturday. The dawn spectacle is already underway and Kew is deserted, Canada geese the only witnesses of my passage. Richmond is equally dormant, homeless still fast asleep in their duvets. A publicity screen at a nearby bus stop proclaims that one night spent rough sleeping is one night too many, but I just need to look around to know the emptiness of our Mayor’s invective.
Twickenham – pardon, Twickers – is a treasure trove of different architectures, mixing small-town touches with 1930s tenements where you could all but imagine Hercule Poirot giving his little grey cells a workout. A Singapore Airlines jetliner rumbles overhead, covering the last miles of its journey to Heathrow. It’s almost as if normalcy has returned… almost.
Bushy park is silent or, rather, pleasantly devoid of human sound. Better Half waits for me outside the Strawberry Hill gate; inside, ducks chat amongst each other and blue-eyed crows totter around looking as if they’ve all received bad news and are pondering their next steps.
A flock of starlings, petrol-green birds that, in my airline days, we used to call The Kamikazes for their propensity to fly straight into jet engines, are doing a coordination drill. Parakeets, as much residents of West London as Benedict Cumberbatch, are having their usual morning shouting match. Coots, on the other hand, are still chilling out.
Wildlife is clearly not bothered by the sight of passing humans. We are at best registered, at worst ignored. Mama duck isn’t worried for her ducklings and the swan only flaps its wings because we’re from outside the TW postcode. Snob.
There are more than 300 deer in Bushy Park, Better Half informs me, but today it seems they’ve all gone someplace else for the weekend. That’s until we turn a corner and, squatting amongst the tall ferns, we find them.
A gang of young bucks are chilling out together, growing respectable antlers ahead of this year’s mating season fights. One of them is an albino, spots still – somehow- visible on its mantle.
I’m a horrible person. Show me a deer and it’ll be seconds before I can visualise it as a huge cauldron of stew with polenta on the side. Hey, in my defence I’m a quasi-vegetarian! And… aren’t we supposed to be eating local, free range, organic? Better Half pilots me away with promises of a burger, the first since January.
But then… disaster. Rabbits!
Admittedly, these little balls of fluff are way too small and big-eyed to risk ending up in the pot, but since we’re amongst friends I will confess to having nurtured deeply unholy thoughts involving red wine marinade and Vitelotte potatoes. That’s probably why Bunny, here, is looking a wee bit alarmed.
Better to move on before the irreparable happens. Time to start the long trek home. Bushy Park, we’ll be back.
It’s not the purpose of this blog to start featuring obituaries but, today, I’m making an exception. I’ve just read that Ennio Morricone has left us aged 91 (still too soon if you ask me). People with far greater eloquence than me will publish much better articles; they will exalt his career, enumerate his successes, lament the dismal treatment he received by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I’ll just leave here this scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: it’s the scene of the search for Arch Stanton’s tomb. A magnificient scene by itself, but destined for immortality by Morricone’s Ecstasy of Gold. Even a cinematography illiterate like myself can’t avoid feeling goosebumps each and every time I see Tuco running around in a crescendo of desperation.
Slowly, with a lot of very British dithering and even-more-British bursts of anti-social behaviour, our society is opening up. A few days ago, I went on the Tube: my first public transport ride since mid-March. Pubs are rumoured to be opening on July 4th, a date saluted by the tabloids as “our Independence Day” (demonstration, if ever there was a reason, that history is not a mandatory subject in British schools). Hesitantly, gingerly, we are starting to consider foreign travel. Which, for most of us emigrants, means returning home.
And what a funny place “home” is. I realise I’ve never really introduced it to this blog, though it featured on a few posts here and there: Biella, meaning “connecting rod” in Italian. Lying at the butt-end of the Po valley where the flat, alluvial land hits the Alps, Biella is a place renowned in Italy for its friendliness and openness. “You can stay there thirty years and not make a friend”, a saying goes. A Milanese chum of mine had a client in Biella, a guy whom he called “November 2nd” due to his particularly sunny disposition and outlook to life (notice for the non-Italian Catholics: November 2nd is the day of the dead, where you are expected to pay homage to long-lost relatives at the local cemetery. Think Dia de los Muertos but without the parades, make-up, music or mescal). Such is my hometown.
I won’t deny it: despite its gloom, the metre of yearly rain and the boneheadedness of its inhabitants I like my hometown. I haven’t lived there for 15 years now, but I still feel bieleìs. You will have me drooling over a good polenta concia, lament the lack of Amaro di Oropa, sneer at the French for daring to hint at owning the paternity of toma and I still check the results of the local basketball team.
Biella is a whimsical experience, a surreal place. Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner’s Roy Batty, came ‘round one day and got lost in our woods, so lost that he had to call the Carabinieri to come find him (they did). Michael Schumacher, one hot summer day, arrived as if directed by something, got an ice cream for himself and his son, and then drove off. Never came back, apparently. If you want more proof, here is some: titles from local news, pearls all from this year. And bear in mind they’ve been unable to go further than 200 metres away from home from February to May. God knows what else they could’ve done had it not been for some bat-eaters triggering a pandemic.
Man who called the Carabinieri to say he was in danger was only trying to check his phone reception
Gang steals two cigarette lighters
Man sneezes and runs away without paying for his groceries
Biella City Council’s website hacked by a Russian prostitute service
A man complains to the Carabinieri of having seen a child driving a tractor
Mayhem in Roppolo: an ostrich evades from its pen and goes walkabout
Two horses and a donkey stroll around Trivero in the night
Woman hit by a kayak on the sidewalk
“That bar’s music is too loud”: but it wasn’t true
An indignant reader complains: “There’s a barefoot man in speedos on the Oriomosso trail”
30-something in trouble for a dildo found in his car
Man blows up cafetière by filling it with petrol instead of water
Songbird trapped in a Ponderano tobacconist, freed by the Fire Brigade
Off-piste skier ends up on the roof of a restaurant
68 apply for 3 jobs as traffic warden. All fail.
APPEAL: There’s a cat stuck on a tree, does anybody know it?
Septuagenarian starts a fight at the post office. “They wouldn’t give me a discount”.
I once had a colleague who, in retrospective, I wish I’d known better. He left the company before I could, proof once again that the only outcome of too many postponements is missing out on things. But I digress; I had a colleague, once, and that guy had an uncanny ability to ask the right questions. One day over lunch he asked one of those: “if you needn’t worry about money, what job would you do?”.
There was only one answer, for there is only one dream job that, even in my dreams, I know could never pay enough: travel writing.
Now, I think I’m getting close to that. Not to getting paid – oh no, not that – but to making a job out of it. The hours poured into this nascent project, this veritable labour of love, are rivalling those invested – or wasted, I should say – in the dayjob, the one that pays the bill. I’ll be back with more, but in the meantime, here’s a teaser to end this post.
All things considered, the neighbourhood has adapted pretty well to this lockdown malarkey. Each day follows the previous one in a well-rehearsed pattern: mornings bring the pastoral visit of buzzing bumblebees and the high-speed patrol of our resident parakeets. Afternoons, instead, follow a different schedule: as I wrap up the last calls of the day there’s a background noise of children playing football, the idiotic dog who barks at the holes he’s just dug and his equally stupid owners, the neighbourhood young parents’ association. Maybe Mr. Whippy will do a pass or two.
Not on that day, though. As the last meeting drew to a close, I had to shut the window to drown out the scream of a siren coming from right below us. Work done I did what every nosy parker would’ve done since we all lived in caves and not on the sixth floor of a modern block of flats: I went on our deck to check out what was going on. Other Half was already there.
“It’s the fire brigade”, she announced: sure enough, the bright red engine was parked downstairs, for the joy of the young parents’ kids. Get this, Peppa Pig. Neither you nor Bob the Builder can compare with the sight of four firefighters! And a truck!
Weirdly enough, the valiant firemen and women didn’t seem interested in our tenement. Rather, they congregated on the opposite side of the road, in the park, huddling beneath the gigantic planes and oakes that makes it feel as if we’re all living in a tree house.
“There’s a bird on the tree”, noted Other Half. Before I could point out that being on trees is sort of to be expected from birds she added “It’s looking as if it’s trapped, or somehow stuck there”. In fact, lo and behold, there was a magpie. High up in the upper branches, higher than our vantage point, flapping her wings desperately. Stuck.
“The neighbours say it’s been stuck there since yesterday, poor thing. They called the fire brigade”. She pointed out at a Polish lady whom I sometimes met downstairs in one of those awkward corridor encounters that are the norm in London.
It wasn’t long before we realised that the fire brigade couldn’t do much. With no way to climb up there all they could do was to shrug, shake their heads and drive off. At least they came, we thought as they left. The little magpie flapped a bit more, and then went quiet.
Daylight lasts for a while, this time of the year. We were returning home after a walk in the neighbourhood when we saw the Polish lady again, this time joined by another of her friends and a tall, muscular man in grey t-shirt and red climbing trousers. Ah, and harness, carabiners and a lot of rope.
“Is he going to do a Honnold?” I asked Other Half as we went back upstairs. It felt impossible. The plane was huge, with a trunk so big that three men couldn’t circle it with their outstretched arms, but… that magpie was stuck high up, where the branches get thinner and thinner.
“He’s doing it!” Other Half, being the climbing aficionado she is (I merely tried once and, in pure Italian fashion, gave up), had kept an eye on the green canopy that filled our view. The man, who turned out to be one of the firefighters who had previously attended the call, was climbing the tree. We caught glimpses of his red trousers as he ascended, leaves and branches rustling as he passed.
The whole building was out, Sky, Netflix and dinner be damned. This whole court of strangers was out there, rooting for the climber and the little magpie he was trying to save. Hating myself for having broken the only set of zoom lenses I had, I started snapping a few photos.
The firefighter was just underneath the magpie, drenched in sweat, perched on the very last branch that could reasonably hold his weight. “What is he gonna do now?” we wondered. He screamed below that the bird was tied up in a string. Wasn’t somebody playing with a kite, there, a few days ago?
“I’ll try and untangle ‘er” he shouted. Best Estuary English ever – actually, evah – outside of Billingsgate market, by the way. A proper Londoner. For a while all we could hear were some muffled curses, the rustling of leaves and the occasional squawk of the trapped bird. We didn’t need an Magpiese-English dictionary to know she was asking “what the actual eff?”. The sun was now sinking behind the buildings, the moon was rising to the south and the sky was turning indigo blue. Then, it happened.
“Got ‘er!” he exulted. “Droppin’ ‘er down now”, he warned our animal-loving Polish contingent below, lowering the bird with another rope. Moments later, our neighbour announced that the bird was fine. The whole building, those sitting in the park and us clapped, bellowed and whooped, including those whose cars have always been used as target practice by pooping birds. A few minutes later, the firefighter dropped to the ground, rappelling with the swagger of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a disaster movie.
The sun set as the crowd dispersed. The firefighter bundled his wares in a white Audi convertible, the Polish ladies left to care for the bird, so that it could have a great story to tell other magpies. As for all of us we returned to ignoring each other as is the custom in a London block of flats, revelling in the knowledge that, for once, the goodies won the day.