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Blogs I Follow
- From Glaciers to the Aral Sea
- Les photos de Suzanne & Pierre
- And miles to go before I sleep
- Quanta Magazine
- Think Wild
- Cycling above the Clouds
- trien trapt
- Postcards from Gulag
- Abandoned Kansai
- Greenland Expeditions by Land and Sea
- Common Sense and Whiskey
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- Mexi Movie the Third
- The people we met on the way
- l'atelier tagnoue
- Notes to Self
- 25,957 hits
I’ve been in a place where Hungarians dress up like they used to do a millenium ago, speed to a full gallop and then throw arrows into a padded target, whilst Kyrgyz flags flutter in the wind, yurts are everywhere and there are some clouds promising rain up the valley.
I might be a while.
This post dates from over a year ago. It wasn’t meant for publication on this blog; a book was going to be its destiny, a book on travels in Central Asia. Alas, this wasn’t to be; yet, I liked this chapter too much, my first foray in some sort of fiction, or into some kind of writing where the lines between what happened, what could’ve happened and what I imagined are purposely blurred. So here it goes.
To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches and rivers – In fact, to see life.
Unnoticed by most, a watershed moment took place, in Western Europe, sometime in the 1980s. Depending on which side of it you sat, you either had experience of black-and-white television, having your passport stamped when travelling, say, from France to Germany or, simply, you didn’t. I belonged to the latter group: I grew with arcade games, ditched music cassettes for CDs before I had money to buy my own records and, crucially, never really got the hang of overnight trains.
In fact, my only experience of such method of travelling was a journey to Frankfurt, Germany, which I took at the tender – at least in those days – age of 15, which left me, well, intimidated. The journey didn’t go too bad, but the pre-dawn arrival into Frankfurt, parading beneath a forest of skyscrapers, towering factory chimneys and high-rises dispelled whatever cockiness I might’ve had. I stood silently, looking at those enormous structures and their red anti-collision lights blinking in unison. I’d never seen anything so big before and if it didn’t feel like Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City, then I didn’t know what did. Later, in the cavernous hall of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, I stood petrified in a corner, waiting for my connection as the station’s security and punks in leather jackets fought pitched battles on the platforms and tracks, their shouts echoing across the vaulted roof.
Some 15 years later, with only that precious experience, I approached Kyzyl-Orda station, on my way to Aralsk, somehow gingerly and decided to do what I always did whenever I wasn’t sure of my actions: I sat down and looked at everyone else. So it was that, by sitting and observing, a well-rehearsed ecosystem came into focus.
A train would pull up at the platform, not before a copious amount of announcements in Kazakh and Russian were made; steps would be deployed and an army of surly attendants would descend on them, one per car and none of them smiling. An elaborate charade would then ensue: those alighting would toss their wares down the steps and then follow them, jumping into the embrace of loving ones picking them up, or simply shouldered their packs and legged it out if no-one had bothered coming to see them. Travellers in jocks and sandals would erupt out, puffing fags as if it was going out of fashion – trains were ferociously no-smoking – and went on to buy food at the omnipresent stalls, where small ladies with hankies in lieu of headscarves would happily sell them tomatoes, whole watermelons, bottles of juice or kompot, as well as round bread and bricks of cheese. In the meantime those who were joining had started climbing aboard, something easier said than done, for it seemed that they’d all decided to relocate and had chosen the train as the mean to do precisely that. The most incredible supply of things went up the steps, bundled into carry-ons, fake Louis Vuitton handbags, cardboard boxes, jute sacks, crates, nets and supermarket carrier bags. If there wasn’t the proverbial kitchen sink it was because I hadn’t been looking on long enough.
In the undergrowth of the station, individuals whose role wasn’t immediately understandable moved around with a sense of purpose. Men in blue overalls and high-vis jackets, plugged in radio sets cackling unintelligible Kazakh, performed obscure tasks between the cars. A woman dressed in exactly the same garb walked the length of the train, hitting with a 2-pound mallet specific points of each wheelset. She listened to the echo and then, visibly satisfied, moved on to do it again on another car. It was also security central: station staff checked my baggage through an X-ray machine and opened the pack on the lookout for scissors and vodka; on the platform, police officers mingled with the railway company security staff and men in fatigues who I assumed being other cops, or perhaps soldiers. Yet, shady deals seemed to happen everywhere I looked, chiefly under the form of a flourishing secondary market for tickets peddled by a small but admirably keen gang of touts.
Armed with this wealth of knowledge and the experience of another train ride, I entered Aralsk station at 5AM of a Sunday. I rightfully expected to be alone, but it turned out that silly o’clock was a good time as any for Aralsk, with women sleeping in the waiting room under Lenin’s beady eye and quite a lot of people milling about. There was a surprising amount of chatting, giggling, coughing and retching. Outside on the platform, at regular intervals somebody fired a glob of phlegm into the dark tracks, evidently the station’s spittoon, where it landed with ballistic accuracy. Bats pirouetted in the air, chasing the flying cockroaches which, in a bid to save their shells, would dive for the ground where they’d land with a chitinous clunk. Freight trains, gigantic behemoths carrying gas and mineral ore, came and went at walking pace.
Aralskoye more had two platforms, linked with wooden walkways strewn across the tracks. Following an exhortation from the lady on the tannoy, a brief speech that anyone but me could understand, everyone stood up, gathered their things and charged for the second platform. I followed sheepishly. The Aktobe express popped out of the night as if it’d emerged from an invisible tunnel, announcing its arrival with enthusiastic blasts of its foghorn, coming to rest two sets of tracks away from the second platform.
I was evidently the only one who’d stopped to wonder what had led a train, pulling up at a station with no other traffic and two available platforms, to stop exactly in the middle of the railyard, for soon I was the only one not scampering above the tracks and between the sleepers. Everyone else – students heading to university, families, pensioners carrying bagfuls of watermelons – legged it on the clinker. I followed suit, tripping into the flip-flops I was wearing, backpack bouncing madly on my shoulders, frantically looking for the sign heralding car no. 15.
Kazakh trains have three classes; VIP, kupe and platzkart, the main differential being the number of berths crammed in each cabin: two in VIP, four in kupe and six in platzkart. Considering that everything else – bedding, toilets, the berths themselves – was exactly the same, I was booked in platzkart for my twelve-hour journey to Aktobe and, as the matron in charge of car 15 pointed out before tossing me a fresh set of bed sheets wrapped in plastic, I had berth 2 in the first compartment.
Feeling, rather than seeing, my way around the compartment I realised I was late to my own party, for all spots seemed taken. At the top, berths 3 and 6 were occupied by the most monumental case of excess baggage that any airline had ever had to see, including what looked like a hay bale rolled up in shrink-film. Down below, in berths 1 and 4 lied two figures, their features blurred like Pompeii mummies but undeniably human and unequivocally asleep. Finally, in the berths at eye level – 2 and 5 – were a strange chimera with a head full of black hair and two small feet, a woman and a child and, on the other side, where I was supposed to sleep, a man.
I sat in the penumbra on the corridor swivel seat, bed linen pack on my knees, the train swaying and rocking, looking suitably perplexed. I must’ve been doing a good job of it, for the matron came in from the bright vestibule, looked at me and then proceeded to toss the occupant of berth 2 awake with the same urgency I’d have used in the event of an impending shipwreck. Feeling rather embarrassed for the how the poor chap had been handled I mounted what I hoped looked like a morally reprobate attempt at letting him enjoy the berth whilst I settled on the – slightly sagging, I had to admit – corridor swivel seat. The matron had none of it: she swatted away my lamentations like a particularly slow fly and gave another healthy ruffling to the guy who, by then, had had enough of being used like a human tumble dryer and descended from the berth clutching a Coke bottle like a teddy bear.
Feeling like a real estate developer ought to after he’d kicked orphans out of a shelter to build a luxury condo, I didn’t dare looking at the guy. He, however, didn’t seem to be holding any particular grudge against me; he gulped half the bottle’s contents down the gullet, shot a burp loud enough to wake camels outside, pounded his chest and said “Stasyon”. I had simply witnessed the wake-up call service, complimentary on all Kazakh railway sleeper trains. I replaced his bedsheets with mine, found a spot at the bottom of my couch for my backpack, climbed clumsily aboard and was asleep before the sun had the time to rise above the steppe.
Kazakh trains are constitutionally self-catering but for an endless supply of boiling water at the end of each car, and there are plenty of advices, online and in guides, to bring one’s own food onboard. As I woke up and went for a wander around the car it was obvious that my fellow travel companions had taken the suggestions to heart. Compared with my supply of three bottles of water, two rounds of bread and a bag of Veggie Pigs I’d flown in from London, every man woman and child had brought enough calories to give a stadiumload of Texans an almighty sugar rush. Tea appliances populated every compartment, together with melons, watermelons, gherkins, bread, boxes of plov, vegetables of all kinds and cookies of the most repellent colours imaginable.
Car 15 came to life as I did, queueing up to the samovar and toilet; having had my caffeine fix I retreated to my cubbyhole from where I could be a privileged observer of delicate balances at play between the other occupants of compartment 1. Flat steppe rolled outside the grimy window, so remarkably homogeneous that, if it was a looping video projected on a tarpaulin held just outside the train, I wouldn’t have noticed it. The human landscape, instead, was a lot more compelling.
I believed my compartment mates were a family and an interesting one at that. The berth opposite to mine was occupied by a young mother and her 4-year-old son; below resided a man in his 40s and, directly under my berth, a teenage girl. They made for a puzzling family scene, a lot more Westernised than the ones I was accustomed to in this corner of the world, for they seemed a lot more like an archipelago of islands adrift in an ocean of silence than the bustling ensemble ubiquitous in the ‘Stans. To see this was sad and interesting at the same time, and I was keen to understand more.
Mother and son were undoubtedly affectionate and inseparable. She was lean, dapper in a bright-green two-piece house dress, even though the pink half-socks decorate with rabbits were, frankly, the stuff of nightmares. She had a sharp yet beautiful face and stern looks enhanced by the severe make up she wore: two lines above the eyes and dark lipstick. Her jet-black hair was accurately combed and knotted in a ponytail. Her son was strikingly beautiful and incredibly well-behaved: he lived through the whole journey, an experience who’d have brought me apoplectic with boredom had I been him, with Olympic calm, either playing with his mother or keeping himself company with a tiny action figure of a mermaid or a small sketchbook on which he drew the Simpson’s characters printed on his own tank top.
If the similarities between him and his mother were evident, I could see a lot of the man who I took to be his father in him too. They both had regular features, the same we appreciate in actors and models, with sharp cheekbones, strong jaw, straight and well-sized nose. Their almond eyes were intelligent and inscrutable. The boy was still some 15 years away from it, and his father perhaps 10 years after his prime, but both wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in a city bar.
The man was a bit weather-worn, with wrinkles around the eyes and hair going snow-white above the temples, and a smattering of gold teeth every time he smiled, but I could clearly see his lineage in the young kid. But even if their looks gave a hint of relation, the same couldn’t be surmised just by looking at their interaction, or lack thereof. Fact was, the boy never spoke, or dared approaching, the man and the man never made any gesture towards his progenies or consort; he just sat on his bed, plugged into a smartphone linked to a device with blinking lights, router or power bank or perhaps both. In the ten hours we were to pass together, he spoke only with the teenager girl sitting opposite him, and no more than three times.
She was, perhaps, the most multifaceted character of this rather bi-dimensional cast. She was twelve or thirteen, at that point when teenagers are neither here nor there, children or adults, clumsily out of place. Tall for her age, with long black hair, intelligent eyes and a flourishing of acne she didn’t seem to mind. She wore a black top that read, in loud white letters, Carpe that fucking diem and I found myself hoping she’d chosen it knowingly.
Were they together and, if so, why? The woman couldn’t possibly be the mother of the girl as well as of the child, for she looked barely ten or twelve years her senior, and they didn’t look like sisters either. Slowly, out of boredom, I began putting together a story. I build it over mugs of coffee drank standing up on platforms of stations whose names I couldn’t read, joining the ranks of nicotine addicts; I honed it whilst waiting for my turn for another withdrawal from the samovar bank. Finally, after a while, it was ready. Or as ready as I was willing it to be.
They really were husband and wife. She was his second wife, the first having flown the nest. Where had she gone? It didn’t really matter, what matter was that she’d gone, leaving a daughter in her wake. He remarried to get his long-awaited male heir, and the younger wife had given him that. Heir to what I didn’t know – something for the second draft, perhaps – but whatever the inheritance here was the designated successor, stomping around adorably in a sweatshirt proclaiming Good idea in capital letters. Long-awaited or not it was clear that the man’s idea of parenting drew a lot from Victorian Britain, in the sense that his offspring weren’t to be seen or heard of unless specifically told so.
But what about the relationship between the wife and the girl that, I decided, was her stepdaughter? Ah, that was a tough one. I mulled options for a while, savouring on the tip of my tongue like aged whisky as I watched young conscripts returning from leave queueing to the loo, entering with long hair and returning with drill sergeant-proof crew cuts. Eventually I settled for armed truce. Daughter accused stepmom of having driven her biological mother out of the house, an accusation I deemed unjust – fade to flashback when dad obtains a divorce as mum is unable to give him a male son. Besides, as I looked at the young mother’s attempts at keeping a neat figure in the dingy platzkart, I had an inkling that, whichever hopes and dreams she harboured for her life, they didn’t include this third-class compartment. Still, the dam held, but when it breached… boy, that would’ve been an afternoon worth of a Greek tragedy.
Pretty satisfied with the story I’d so far put together I decided to listen to some music – Rodriguez always went well with long journeys – and promptly fell into a deep slumber. I surfaced again only when the teenage girl gently shook my arm, saying in a good English that were only one hour out of Aktobe and that the attendant needed my bedsheets back. I nodded and groggily rolled out to comply; that’s when I noticed that the bottom bunk where the man – my appointed pater familias – was empty. Was he gone? I asked the girl, and she nodded. He’d alighted earlier in some place I didn’t know and couldn’t locate, a toponym filled with Ks and aspired consonants.
We pulled up in Aktobe shortly thereafter, again far away from the nearest platform. I bode farewell to the girl, and walked along the tracks, witnessing the dissolution of my hastily assembled cast; the soldiers, the mother and child, the girl, all heading their separate ways in the epic exodus from train 33 Almaty-Aktobe. I imagined a small boutique family drama of the kind that yield passionate standing ovations at Cannes, but this looked a lot more like the closing scene of some biblical blockbuster. Imagining an appropriate shot – the camera, perched on a crane or hanging from a drone, rising slowly over the train and the station bathed in the golden sunlight of the afternoon – I shouldered my pack and walked out of the station. Somewhere near, according to the map I scribbled on my notebook, there was my hotel.
My edition has been printed in 2000 and, as all cheap paperbacks, isn’t ageing very well. The pages are yellowing with the characteristic celerity of poor quality pulp; its spine is bent, but in fairness it was already in this shape when I first bought it; the cover is cracked and ear-marked. The artwork, the one that struck me in the first place, is still there though. A man in fatigues, right hand holding a rifle, left holding his head against the wrinkly trunk of a tree. Of his head, only a 1990s mop of hair is visible. His face hidden, we are left free to wonder what has caused him to lean against the trunk. Sadness, exhaustion, something overwhelming? Who knows. All I’m sure of is that it is the cover of a book, My War Gone By, I Miss It So, that can claim its status as a modern-day classic.
It almost begs belief that a slender volume of 300 pages and change, dedicated to the experiences of one Antony Loyd, journalist, in the Balkans and Chechnya, can be an almost inextinguishable source of new insight, but this is precisely what’s happening here. This is something more than a war book, it is a kaleidoscope of views on humanity in which every sentence is necessary and poignant, every opinion bound to generate thought and debate. In fairness, and without trying to dramatise, I hadn’t read anything like this since Hemingway.
I’ve read My War Gone By, I Miss It So four times now; each and every one of them has given me something new. The first one happened some years ago, the book being the company for a driving holiday through the very places where the conflict had happened, Bosnia and Croatia. Of that first read I remember my surprise at the realisation that, far from being relieved by its end, Loyd was missing the conflict. I went through the pages on Sarajevo whilst we journeyed through that city, and I struggled to reconcile the haunted description of the besieged town with the lively place we were in. Mankind’s capacity to bounce back from the abyss was, without a doubt, the most poignant lesson I took from that trip.
The second reading of My War happened one winter. A particularly rainy one, before the switch to the daylight saving time, for both my commutes happened in the dark. There were pages, in the book, written in italic, their subject quite different from the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya: a frank and matter-of-fact description of the author’s addiction to heroin, a monkey that he seemingly could only lift off his back by descending again into the conflict. I had never heard anything as hardcore – war as a substitute for smack – but I had no doubt in believing what I was reading. The book helped me realise that addiction is as much, if not more, a public health problem than a criminal one.
Sometimes between spring and summer of 2017 I had another occasion to pick up My War. This time the trigger was, in a copy of The Times that I picked up on a business trip, a reportage by Anthony Loyd from Syria, a touching and enraging article on the legacy left by the genocidal folly of Daesh. Once home I rushed back to the book. This time I discovered the vivid, cinematographic description of war: the blast of an apocalyptic Russian shelling on Grozny, beating the author through the closed doors of a speeding car, or the heart-in-your-mouth escape through the woods, a mad dash towards friendly lines as bands of Serbs descended behind him in a hail of fire and promises of horrific death. As far as action writing went, Loyd was second to none.
I have just completed my fourth read of the book; this one proved, rather worryingly, that the message of My War is still very much actual today, anno Domini 2018, as it was in ninety-four.
The whole array of Balkan wars are considered in a rather paternalistic way in Italy. My high-school history manual, for instance, was as good an example of this as any. The affair was liquidated in a page-and-half in terms that one could only describe as Darwinistic. Jugoslavia, the book went, was an invention, cobbled together only by the personality of Tito; him gone, the various peoples returned to their heritage, which was inevitably made of wars and Medieval hatred. War, it concluded, was only inevitable once the whole house of cards had tumbled. Loyd made short work of this idea, time and again.
The Muslim commander called Beba and his Serbian opponent, sitting together on the frontline at the foot of Mount Vladić, bringing each other up to speed with the latest from common acquaintances, now divided by the fighting. The Croat soldiers of Vareś who drove their Muslim friends and neighbours to the safety of a maniple of Swedish UN troops, away from the murderous reach of a gang of fellow Croats from elsewhere, crying tears of shame and anguish as they did. And many more. No, this wasn’t a war of race or religion, said Loyd, and I believed him over my history book.
What caused it, then? How could neighbours, people of the same ethnicity, who spoke similar languages, drank the same slivovica, turn on each other with such bestiality? How to explain Srebrenica, Stupni Do and the countless acts of wanton cruelty inflicted on civilians and prisoners? Peddle enough propaganda, Loyd said, and it’ll work. Stir up enough reports of Islamist bestialities, he said, and even the most urbane and secular person would succumb to suspect and fear. The proof, for me, was the case of one separatist enclave, nominally Muslim, led by an opportunistic former apparatchik. In a bid for power he managed to whip up such a terror of the government, whose secular army he painted as a band of deranged fundamentalists, that he managed to get Muslims to fight other Muslims.
At the time of my first reading of My War Gone By, I Miss It So this tactic – throw enough dehumanising bullshit at some specific group and soon your minions will stop considering them as people – felt very effective but, I thought, a bit passé. I thought we’d grown past it. But now, as every day brings more fake news, more Presidents blabbing about bad hombres, more Sun commentators writing about “cockroaches” and more Interior Ministers talking about “big cleaning-up operations”, I’m starting to reconsider it.
Doctor, dear doctor, help me for I’m a graphomaniac. Yes doctor, I love paper. I adore the smell of the thing, the muffled noise of a pencil running on a smooth sheet. In a nutshell, doctor, I love writing. I feel the need, no the urge, to put my thoughts on paper. Doctor, I even have a favourite pen (Uni-ball broad black, made by Mitsubishi in Japan, and to think I was sure they only made cars). I’ve also got a favourite pencil (Staedler Norris HB2). I own two laptops, I can get OneNote on my mobile: yet, I can’t do without pen and paper. I sketch my presentations and plans on a Waitrose Essentials pad, before I commit them to the eternity of PowerPoint or MS Project. It’s bad, I know.
Actually, doctor, do me a favour. Don’t help me. I’m perfectly fine as it is, going through a pad every quarter, sharpening my pencils and losing rubber erasers at every corner. In facts, now that we’re friends, doc – mind if I call you doc? – why don’t you ditch that iPad of yours and get a notepad? Notepad and fountain pen doc, they’ll give you a certain je ne sais quoi. People love it, I’m told.
I plunged into graphomania in my early teens, thanks to two, unrelated, events that happened one summer. Must’ve been 1995, or 1996. Who knows. Enter event one: a book, which I think I pinched from my brother, about the Vietnam war, the title long forgotten. A passage mentioned how the NVA soldiers all loved writing, and carried small booklets, normally bound in red cloth, or oilskin, to which they confided dreams, stories, letters and poems. Whilst the concept of poetry was lost on me – perhaps I’m too prosaic to appreciate it – the idea of having a personal notebook was something I could relate to.
Event two happened the following year, and was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. One specific scene of that film captured my imagination, and it wasn’t Elsa’s death, or the adventurous chases in the Venetian dungeons: it was, of all things, Sean Connery’s notebook. See, Connery, who played Indy’s father, had a notebook, a black thing held close by an elastic, bulging with flying papers, covered in notes, yellowed by time, filled with exquisite drawings and containing God knows how much wisdom. Ah, to have something like that in my pocket!
Notebook, in Italian, is taccuino, to be pronounced with a hard c, as if it was a k, and I became hell-bent on possessing one. The price was about 10,000 Lira and let me tell you that, when you’re eleven, that’s some serious dough, especially if your only income is granted by squirrelling away the loose change off a 2,000 Lira ice cream cone. Still, one day, having gathered the necessary funds, I marched to the bookstore of the village where we lived at the time, appropriately named Livres et Musique. Back then there was only one choice, or so it seemed to me. It was a rather serious black taccuino, ruled or plain, its angles dull and a folding pocket for loose papers. The Moleskine.
In the intervening twenty years things changed – price, for starters, or a shift in preference for the soft-cover plain version – but the equation taccuino=Moleskine always held true, at least for me. Each and every one would have its pages numbered with a sharp pencil, like Chatwin suggested (and I don’t even like the guy). With time, though, the purpose of a taccuino evolved. What set out to be a recording of impressions and notes, to be jotted down quickly on the road, lest I forgot them, morphed in the repository of the first draft of all my blog posts. Talk about Lean processes.
Then, roughly two years ago, the idea. Why couldn’t I use a Moleskine to write down some notes on what was useful, interesting or good to eat? After all, I carried the thing in the back pocket of my trousers anyway. It followed that, in order to find all this treasure, I needed a map where, unlike what Indy said, X always marked the spot.
I’m not very good at drawing. I suppose I lack the basics, a good understanding of prospective: whatever it is, I know that whatever I’ll draw will be asymmetric, too baroque on one side and barren on the other. Caravaggio would definitely headbutt me, or worse. Still, the idea of drawing my own maps, of forging my personal guide, was too good to pass on.
Faithful to the old adage “Don’t run before you can walk”, my first attempt was comically simple. A one line, describing the coast of South-West Sri Lanka, and another to define our itinerary. Then a step too far, a map of Nuwara Eliya that I found mildly pleasing but utterly useless at navigating through the valley.
I hastily returned to the very basics, with a simple sketch of our journey through the Pamirs.
Uzbekistan was a challenge. How to depict the riot of roads, alleys and catwalks that made the centre of Samarkand, Bukhara or Tashkent? Draw a grid, I told myself.Draw a grid, use a pencil, sharpen it often and focus on what’s important. But for a few wrong turns, it worked well.
Beirut was next. Here precision was fundamental, especially in Hamra. Roads had no names, or if they had they were known with others. Nicknames, nom-de-guerreor prominent buildings. To hell with proportions, what mattered here was the number of junctions, of roads, so not to miss our hotel at night.
And so here we are today. New maps are ready for use, a lot more than ever before. Some are utilitarian, sketches with the same beauty of a skip filled with old furniture; other are more aesthetically pleasing; will their artistic flair match their usefulness, come September? I guess that only time will tell.
This post is dedicated to Magdi. After all, it was your idea.
Panning, excitable teenagers on Youtube will tell you, is a technique used in photography where the camera rotates on its Y axis in order to keep a moving object in focus. If done well, the result will be a striking photo where the subject is crisply detailed, whilst everything around it will be blurred, conveying the idea of movement.
Now, the idea of myself tinkering about with a camera’s settings is so absurd not to be worth considering. Fact is, you could put me next to an orangutan, give both of us exactly the same DSLR and I guarantee – no, I swear – that he’ll learn to shoot in manual mode sooner than me, and with a lot less profanities.
Still, one Sunday in Chicago I set off with the declared intent of doing panning photography.
Much in the same way that one doesn’t quite turn to criminality by himself on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, this desire had to be born from semewhere. Every fire has a firestarter, and mine was our company photographer: an amiable Scotsman with glasses, a predilection for chequered shirts and the odd habit of calling people “Dude”, due to, I suppose, to an excessive consumption of the Big Lebowski. Anyhow, one day I bumped into him; one thing led to another and here we were, watching photos on the screen of his phone. There was one of a particular American town – could be Houston, could be Phoenix, they all seem carbon copy of each other to me – with a black musclecar speeding on one of those devilish concrete overpasses they have over there. You can just but glimpse the overpass, the skyscrapers and stuff, because it’s all blurred. All there is to see is the dark, powerful vehicle. The details are so crisp I can gaze at the tattoos snaking up the driver’s elbow.
At that point, a small voice inside my head began chirping “I wish I knew how to do those photos”.
So, one day, armed only with a couple of indications from the McDude, a fraction of the gear and none of the talent I set off, stalking cyclists in Lincoln park and motorcyclists downtown. Immediately, I realised that something was amiss.
Everyone seemed to be going too slow: cyclists crawled at a pace that would’ve made the fixie brigade in London apoplectic with anger, and bikers seemed more interested in cruising by than to do wheelies. Perhaps it was because no one wore helmets and didn’t want to crack their skulls open, but things didn’t seem to be going very well. All I had to show was some snaps, still as if painted by a Medieval miniaturist.
Undeterred by the American debacle, upon my return I dived again in the wide world of Youtube, taking copious notes on instruction of youngsters peppering their parlance with adverbs such as “Totally”. Finally, a modus operandi came into play, a delicate balance of shutter speed and lenses. I was ready to try again.
Sunday morning brought the end of the heatwave that had turned the parks yellow and the people nuts. Clouds flew across the sky as if in a rush to go somewhere, and the temperature had turned decidedly British again. Wrapped in a windbreaker and shorts, I headed to one of the bridges that links Chiswick with Richmond, waiting for the great Lycra transhumance that is the London Prudential 100. Because, I figured, if one wants to get the hang of panning, where better to do it than at a race with thousands of cyclists?
And, sure enough, they started to arrive. I checked the screen after every burst, hoping to see the long-awaited photos… but no. Perhaps I’m too fast, I thought, and slowed the shutter speed. Then…
It’s hard to describe the sensation of satisfaction that I got from this photo. But soon, a lot more started to flood in.
Cyclists were everywhere. Groups were so ubiquitous that I began seeing double. Or perhaps triple. Or quadruple?
I moved on the bridge, grinning uncontrollably. And I wasn’t the only one with a smile on his face, or so it seemed.
As soon as I realised I was missing out on the ladies, an occasion came.
Then, sadly, the weather closed down on us. It was to rain for the whole day, a hell of an anticlimax after 2 months of sun.
I returned home absolutely drenched, my windstopper – valiantly protecting the torso – turning into a sort of a waterfall. Pathetic as it might sound, I felt as if I’d achieved something big, something worth making a big song and dance about. Me, the guy who couldn’t take a decent photo not even if he tried, finally succeeded.
Click below for more; if you are one of the cyclists in these photos, first well done! Second, please do let me know if you want them taken offline or if you’d like a full-res version of any of them.
There are a few words as laden with meanings, almost entirely of negative connotation, as gentrification. Say it and your mind will conjure images of invading toffs, an irresistible volkswanderung of genteel professionals with no fear but for white carbs, descending on the last redoubts of affordable real estate prices in a motorcade of Volvo SUVs. Type the cursed word in your search engine of choice and you’ll be spoilt for choice on which article to read, all inevitably telling the story of those pushed out from their neighbourhood in Brixton, Brooklyn or the Bay Area. After a while, the irony that these articles are published by the very papers favoured by the gentry – Guardian, Independent, Washington Post, New York Times – will hit you. As far as absurdities go, it’s up there with the sight of Nantucket harpooners engrossed in academic journals on the effect of mass whale hunting on the marine ecosystem.
My attitude towards gentrification has, to borrow from a former leader of the main Italian Communist party who later in life joined a militant Catholic organisation, “changed slowly”. Had you been stupid enough to ask my opinion a few years ago – on gentrification, not on Commies-turned-Catholics – you’d have been in for a tirade on unscrupulous developers, professionals’ lofts and grad pads. However, these days my view has become a bit more nuanced, along those wishy-washy Centrist lines that go “when done properly, gentrification can be useful”. This turning of coats has happened because of one thing, and one thing only: King’s Cross.
It can be argued that the best boost to the reputation of King’s Cross has been JK Rowling. Had she not chosen it as the departure point of a trainload of little wizards en route to Hogwarts, it’s doubtful whether any visitor would ever have noticed King’s Cross (even the Eurostar just sort of skims it). Instead, in one of the great mysteries of modern-day tourism, this mere fact – and a luggage trolley wedged into a brick wall – has put King’s Cross on the map of thousands who’d be willing to line up to snap a photo of themselves in front of said wall, through which Harry Potter walked on to Platform 9 ¾ and, arguably, the one and only train that has ever left London in time since 1954. Whilst today’s station looks arguably great, only the most strenuous wearer of a pair of rose-tinted-glasses can deny that, had Harry Potter asked around for platform 9 and ¾ a decade ago in the station’s environs, he’d get anything – robbery at knifepoint, a foil of crack cocaine, a quickie in exchange for a tenner – but an answer.
If there’s a conclusion for this rather convoluted introduction, it’s that, 10 years ago, King’s Cross rhymed with decay. Those less merciful than yours truly would define it as an open-air latrine or, in the immortal words of Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcom, “one big pile of shit”. I remember walking around Pentonville road with my dad in 2003 through a parade of boarded-up shops. Prostitutes loitered outside a hostel, waiting for clients, whilst junkies ambled about. A discarded shopping trolley sat atop a mound of rubble that descended into a no man’s land towards the skeleton of the abandoned gasworks.
If you were to do the same walk today, you’d have trouble believing that this is still the same town.
Where the post-industrial wasteland dragged on, a new city sprouted out of nowhere. KX, as it had been dubbed, glittered under a sky that had very little of London and a lot of Mallorca. A street market led, through a terrace where a multitude sunbathed and watched the latest from Wimbledon on a giant screen, to the canal and a set of locks operated by a tattoed punk. New homes had been built within the gasworks’ pantograph structure: cylinders with an obviously eye-watering price per square meter, enclosed within elaborate brise-soleil of honeycomb metal. They looked both futuristic and ancient, the kind of buildings one would expect to gaze at in Ray Bradbury’s New Texas City.
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The tell-tales of gentrification were plain for everyone to see. Waitrose, second best in Britain’s caste system of supermarkets, had installed itself in a former sweatshop next door to a covered market where prints of whales, bikes, owls, bees – an entire hipster iconography – were on sale. The London University of Arts held classes in a warehouse abutting granary square, serving as ground zero for a veritable epidemic of signs typed in Helvetica. Landscape was carefully engineered to be pollinator-friendly.
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Yet, KX wasn’t just a playground for techies darting out of Amazon’s HQ on their fixed-wheel bikes. A community had lived here throughout all this: the crack-dealing years, the demolitions, the reconstruction, and still did. Local youths worked at the Skip café, an establishment that could be defined as an optimist’s take on Budapest’s ruin pubs. And, in the fountains in Granary square, the sons and daughters of KX frolicked together, a colourful mixture of toddlers dressed in expensive gear bought at Trotters or in Primark knock-offs. Their future, dictated by the different avenues made available by their schools, was already running on ever diverging tracks but today, under this strangely warm sun, gentrifiers and gentrified were one and the same.
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Waking up at silly o’clock in a corporate hotel room (describable by the colour “beige”) on the 25thfloor of a Magnificent Mile high-rise in Chicago, I felt a genuine, good-spirited sense of excitement. It was a cocktail, I decided as I slipped in the few non-business rags I’d brought, made of ebullience at the idea of having the time to see the place I was in, and of sheer expectation for a day that, I decided, I was to pass by myself.
It might sound a tad egotistical, and perhaps even a bit socially awkward, but I was yearning for a day with me, and myself only, to deal with. I was savouring, as I rode the elevator to the lobby, the freedom of going left if it pleased me, or right if I fancied it. Latitude to go ahead to my heart’s content, or to stop where I wanted, without having to deal with social courtesies, embarrassed compromise or the inane chit-chat that are the stalwarts of when people with different personalities and interests are forced together by the bonds of a contract: I didn’t want Sunday ever to end.
I had one suggestion for the day, by the incredible Julie at Wish I Were Here: Andersonville, somewhere up in the long brush stroke of streets, railway lines and infrastructure that unravelled northbound from the Loop. So I set off, aiming casually northwards, free to go and to deviate only three blocks in, waylaid by an inconspicuous sign that read “Navy Pier”.
There is something, for me, in visiting what normally is a hive of activity at its quietest. Victoria Station at 4 AM. St. Peter’s square at 5 in the morning. Navy Pier at 6.30 AM on a Sunday. Bar for a couple of joggers and a truck patiently refilling a tour boat – a rather eerie sight, for there were no humans in sight to supervise the operation – I had the pier to myself, the only one to hear the lament of seagulls and the clinking of hoist ropes against flag poles: much to my surprise, a dozen rainbow flags flew in the wind, together with the Stars ‘n’ Stripes, the State and City banner, looking out to what felt very odd not to be able to call ‘sea’.
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My initial impression of Lincoln Park – wide avenues, condos with concierge and fitness centres, no one but the homeless on the street – fizzled and disappeared as soon as I started weaving in and out of the grid of smaller streets that led to the north. Whilst the larger arteriae drowned everything with their impersonality, the roads feeding them nourished me with their quiet floridity. I walked in the shade of a continuous canopy of trees, past homes in wood, stone or brick, flags dangling from poles and newspapers on the doormat. At times, the residential texture broke to reveal a commercial high street, where Starbucks might be sitting shyly in a corner and individually-owned businesses took pride of place. Dry cleaners were out in force, an activity that – together with standing on the kerb dressed in Lycra, watching your French bulldog stare at another, identical, specimen held by a fellow Lycra-clad person – had to be North Chicago’s favourite past-time.
Pushing northwards through streets so quiet that I could hear my blood rumbling into my ears, I found entertainment in the all-American tradition of putting slogans on car number plates. Used to the impersonality of Europe’s ones, I’d always found this habit deeply fascinating, and today I could add a few more examples that I hadn’t, so far, seen before. “Land of Lincoln” was obviously out in force and, by the time I read it 30 times, I began finding it quite reductive for Illinois which, in the 150-or-so years between then and now, must’ve produced somebody else worth being proud about. I giggled at the mild bitterness of DC’s “Taxation without representation”and felt a sudden urge to hug the owner of the car that read “America’s dairyland”. You cannot claim to have a heart and not feel for Wisconsin, who must’ve thought long and hard about what defined it and couldn’t come up with anything better than the liquid squirted out of a cow’s udder.
It was by then 10:30, and I was still halfway to Andersonville. My plan had been to find a suitable café on the main road, where to have breakfast and multiple cups of coffee, perhaps a place where they’d call it “joe”, but the progress so far suggested I might be late for it. Faced with what looked like failure, I did what anyone would’ve done. I cheated.
The Red line of the L delivered me in 10 minutes of air-conditioned bliss into a rectangle of neatly ordered streets – is there a bendy one in the whole of Chicago? – oozing Scottish heritage: Argyle, Balmoral, a whisky shop. Yet, the atmosphere was unequivocally American. As I set off for a first round of sight-seeing it occurred to me that Andersonville fitted, for me, with the blueprint of any small-town American town I’d ever imagined. There was a high street with restaurants, stores, a bookshop and a couple of bars and, around it, beautiful wooden homes hidden beneath verdant trees. This is how I imagined Stephen King’s towns to be looking like in It or The Dark Half. The resemblance with the grainy footage of the moonwalkers’ birthplaces, in the Apollo documentaries, was also striking. I half-expected to bump into Charlie Duke loading his truck with paper bags from the shop. Andersonville was the kind of place where men and women smiled at complete strangers and asked how they were doing, and where those who sat on public benches read books and drank lattes, not smoked crack. After a couple of rounds, I settled on a café, where I was accommodated by the window, the breakfast menu included roasted potatoes and steak & eggs and coffee refills were as forthcoming as fresh Prosecco chalices at a Putney bottomless brunch.
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Yet, there was something very different from the standard all-American small town feel in Andersonville. It wasn’t the Swedish heritage that painted the old water tower blue and gold; I had an initial inkling when, walking along a residential street, it occurred to me that every house displayed, on the porch, American and rainbow buntings, and signs on the lawns proclaiming that hate didn’t live there in half-a-dozen languages.
But the real wake-up occurred as I stopped by a set of traffic lights, on the way to the café I’d chosen for my morning bacchanal. A duo of short-haired ladies pulled up beside me on a baby-blue Harley, a monster that they rode bare-headed, wearing Levi’s, shades and the sort of leather gilets that the Hell’s Angels prototyped in the 1960s. Music blared out of a hidden speaker, a cheeky guitar riff I’d heard it before. I had to ask.
“Sorry, isn’t that Electric Six?”
“Yeah baby!”the passenger bellowed as the driver put the dinosaur into gear and rumbled off. “Danger danger high voltage!” they laughed as they left. I grinned, both because I loved the brief conversation, didn’t mind the song and I finally understood it all.
Andersonville was the hotspot for Chicago’s gay community, a veritable Midwestern answer to Soho; I remember Julie mentioning this to me, and in fact it now made sense. In the café a moustached waiter, his chequered shirt closed only on the last two buttons, bounced along to Radio Gaga’s bassline whilst he took my order. The music then changed to I Feel Love by Bronski Beat, which for reasons unknown prompted me to think about Slavonski Brod, the Croatian border town, whilst more and more couples and families piled into the café to gorge on the great food.
I’d likened Andersonville to Soho, but in hindsight this was better. In Soho few – if any – could afford to live, and most came only to celebrate, and even that was in retreat, threatened by gentrification. Andersonville, instead, was a residential neighbourhood that offered an insight into the normality of a gay couple or family, away from the usual partying cliché. And it was also interestingly mixed: two straight families with toddlers ate at the centre table, an older couple, their son and his partner sat opposite me, whilst a man read a magazine behind my table dressed in a painter’s onesie with the nametag “Rusty”. A motorcade of Jeeps and bikes, all adorned with rainbow flags and modification of the Union banner on those lines, paraded down the main road, headed south, with jubilant cheers from everyone on the street.
“They’re heading down to Pride”offered the ‘stached waiter, before showing the parade’s route with a Sharpie on the Google Maps printout I’d used to guide me there. I, too, headed there. It was too early for the main event, but I was bang on time to witness the spectacle of half of Lincoln Park descending on the pavements, armed with deck chairs, fishing stools, even sofas, to claim a prime spot of real estate for the spectacle to come. Young and old, gay and not, kids and octogenarians, all were reading themselves with the classic preparedness of the Americans: besides seats they had coolers of beer and soft drinks, hot dogs and ice-cream, whilst little Mexican ladies pushed carts filled with tamales. Children played and ran, adults danced and downed pints, glitter and sweat gleamed under the sun. Even the most truculent CPD officer had a smile on his face. A small plane buzzed overhead, trailing an advert.
Penned in a square delimited by CPD blue barriers, and guarded by a posse of beefy cops, a scant group of fundamentalist in baggy trousers and long-sleeved jerseys, hunting caps rolled backwards to protect their sun-burnt necks, shouted homophobe slogans to no one in particular. I watched a man with Fu Manchu moustache wave a sign to criminalise sodomy, whilst everyone ignored them. Everyone but for a party of drag queens, one of whom held a cartoon of Jeff Sessions in S&M outfit in a hand and a sow on the leash on the other, who started blowing kisses to Fu Manchu and his congregation. The homophobes went ballistic, going redder and redder, whilst the bearded cop next to me tried his best not to laugh. Our eyes met and we both grinned. It wasn’t, for a change, a bad day to be in America.
There’s a mammoth-sized hydrangea bush sprouting on the street we normally take on our way to the tube; think an explosion of pink and green caught in the moment of deflagration. As we passed it we heard an ominous buzzing, a concerto of syncopated bzzz as what it felt like dozens of small helicopters were landing, taking off, hovered and in general ambled about. Still, it was hard to locate the source of all that noise.
Let’s have a closer look, shall we?
Ah, there they are!
Bumblebees. Dozens of chubby specimen of species Bombus are gorging themselves on this feast of nectar, leaving for their nests with sacks full of the juicy thing. It’s an uplifting view, but – sadly – an increasingly rare one.
Pollinators, it’s well known, are under threat. A combination of factors, a veritable shit-sandwich of climate change, destruction of wild meadows for those damned English-style lawns and, above all, contamination from neonicotinoid pesticides are inflicting a heavy toll on these little insects, and not just them. It’s estimated that 50% of the 27 species of bumblebees are in decline, 3 have gone completely. 38% of European bees are in decline, together with an astounding 66% of moths and 70% of butterflies. This is bad news for not just this plucky writer of yours when he feels new-age, but for everybody. The overwhelming majority of the plants we use for eating (or feeding cattle) are pollinated, and these animals pollinate an estimated 87% of plants. Without these animals, someone else would have to do the job and, let me tell you, collating pollen from one flower and then giving it to another is a damn long process.
Luckily, help seems to be at hand. The oh-so-vituperated European Union agreed a total ban of neonicotinoid pesticides from the end of 2018 (but for greenhouses), after a long-standing opposition by the UK had been lifted by Micheal Gove, possibly the only commendable action the man made recently if you ask me. This would definitely help, but what can one single fellow, armed perhaps only with a back garden or sometimes not even that, do to get something looking like this?
Well, you could do what many London boroughs are intelligently doing with their parks, i.e. making them scruffier: stop cutting grass one palm from the ground, leaving plants to grow taller, and flowers to grow.
Flowers need to be growing almost all year round, from March to October, and can be of many kinds: lavender, oregano…
… rosemary, daisies…
… foxgloves, roses and so many more.
This is how the urban spaces in the new King’s Cross development, where one of the areas that could only be described as a seething pit is now becoming a jewel. But that’s all to come; in the meantime, on with the buzzing.
Humanity is the best spectacle, in this city where gated communities rub shoulders with bombed-out, charred shells. Pneumatically-enhanced bimbos and babes driving Dodge Camaros on one end of the spectrum and ragged Syrian children tapping on their rolled-up windows for zakat on the other: in this city, there are so many nuances of humanity, sprinkled all around town with such liberality, that walking from neighbourhood to neighbourhood felt like crossing into a whole new country altogether.
We set off from Hamra, heading east. The neighbourhood had gone a long way since the days of the war and now had a distinct family feel. Men in goatees played with toddlers whilst women in headscarves smiled benignly on, all whilst swarms of mopeds whizzed everywhere, in or against the flow of traffic. Ice creams were eaten, water and tea and coffee drunk, even though it’s Ramadan and a good six hours to iftar.
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Where the neighbourhood ended – in a fluttering of Hezbollah flags and Syrian National Socialist Party banners – a no-man’s-land of motorway slip roads and barren brushes began, inhabited by scruffy street children, their infancy robbed by the sieges to Aleppo, Homs or Deir-ez-Zor.
We scuttled back to rue des Capucins, past squaddies on patrol and, finally, into a square that felt as if it belonged to another city than the one that hosted Hamra or Basta-al-Tahta. Place des Étoiles.
The square was quiet, a hexagon with leafy trees, a tower clock and the white stone building of Assicurazioni Generali, garnished with all the regimentals, Saint Mark lion included. The place seemed to come alive at night and now was empty but for a few middle-aged couples and men in suits – ministers, businessmen or those wheelers and dealers that are a dime a dozen in these places –hiding behind expensive sunglasses, attired smartly in well-cut suits, purring into a plethora of iPhones and Samsungs. Cops and soldiers hovered around, pulling security.
Hurriedly, we crossed into Martyrs’ square, past the statues, braving the Wacky Races marauding downhill on Damascus Street at the wheel of Denali and Escalade SUVs, to take refuge into Saifi Village: a reticule of roads that had been reshaped to resemble a Provençal village, only posher.
We sat at a restaurant with tables spilling into a cobbled square, conscious of being sweaty, underdressed and not fitting at all with the rest of the clientele who were, without fail, all impeccably appointed. Tables glittered with smart, hand-crafted jewellery in hammered gold and silver. Soft linen draped tanned shoulders: blues and creams were the colours of choice. No one, here, would fall for the brash ostentatiousness of London’s King’s Road. In other words, no red trousers or chevalières. Conversations whiffed in the warm air in studiously well-accented French and Arabic, with two of the players labouring their points by waving around Cohiba cigars. Fidél’s favourite.
We left the actors to their comedy and pressed on eastward. Traffic, the cancer of this city, was surprisingly bearable here, but it hadn’t gone away: simply, it was bumper-to-bumper on Gouraud street. This used to be the Armenian part of town, now inhabited by hipsters and fashionistas. Macbook Pros and Mercs, long beards and expensive dresses bought with old-school checks.
The sun set and we found ourselves on the Corniche. We strolled home as the sun dove behind the curvature of the earth, past the engineered perfection of the Yacht Club and on the seafront promenade. As we walked, I couldn’t shake a feeling of déjà-vu. I had seen these people before. It wasn’t the foreigners – Filipino maids, Ethiopian nannies running on the heels of riotous toddlers, Russian heavies in sandals, but the locals. I’d seen them somewhere before.
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They were all around us, jogging up and down the seafront, smoking narghilé, selling refreshments or just enjoying the day. They were often tall, tanned by the warm Mediterranean sun, the hair frizzy, with streaks of lighter colours in the mass of dark curls, beards flowing in almost geometrical perfection. Noses were strong, powerful, running at the same angle as the foreheads. Eyes were brown, with infrequent but notable hazel-greens that stopped us, speechless, in our tracks. I’ve seen them before.
We reached the corner where the light-house stood. As a solitary fisherman dipped his bait in the water and a group of seals dived into the shallows, it hit me. I’d seen them before, but not in the flesh.
In pictures, in fact, taken from museums all around the world and printed over my high-school history and art manuals. Empty hands holding sticks and implements long gone in the fog of history, walking somewhere impossible to reach. The photos showed small bronze and gold statuettes, scattered around the Med three millennia ago by an enterprising people of traders and explorers: the Phoenicians. They all looked the same, with strong nose, descending in a straight line from the forehead, like the men and women all around us: not caricature, not ideal types long disappeared from the genetic pool after centuries of invasions and völkerwanderungs,but real. Alive.
As we continued strolling towards our home for the night it occurred to me that this people, who 3,000 years ago sailed beyond Gibraltar and into the unknown that lied beyond it, would still be here in another 1,000 years, watching the sun going down from a Beirut waterfront that only God knows how it’ll be looking like.