A cosy red dot away from it all.

You feel it’s a different place from the very moment the jetway disgorges you into the main concourse at Changi Airport. It’s a quick walk on the world’s plushiest, softest carpet to immigration, past ornate flowerbeds erupting with tropical plants, a botanical explosion arranged with gusto. Above, the ceiling flows on in a harmonic wave of thinly perforated metal panels, a mechanical synchronicity of straight lines that looks like a bobbing sea suspended over the travellers’ heads. Or a Minecraft landscape, just a lot more pleasing on the eye. Immigration comes shortly thereafter, each and every desk equipped with a bowl filled with candies and a small bin for the empty wrappers, the agent inviting you to help yourself before stamping you in and saying “Welcome to Singapore”.
Morning brings rainshowers, rolling waves of deluge pounding the streets of East Singapore. Still, despite the onslaught of water, it’s stifling hot and why wouldn’t it be: it never gets chilly one degree north of the Equator. I’m hosted by friends, dipping momentarily in this married couple’s expat life, savouring the pleasures – the air-con, the sweeping vistas, the gym, the pool – of their gated community with security patrols moving snails and centipedes should they venture onto the stone paths. After all, this is the place where people leave iPhone 7s on the food court tables to keep their places.
Shopping arcade follows shopping arcade in a ring around, and inside, the city centre. It’s just four steps between the air-conditioned bubble of our cab and the equally icy atrium of the Japanese supermarket-cum-deli sitting one level below our designated food court.

We eat upstairs at a table commanding imposing views of the financial district’s towers, of the Ferris wheel and of the towering monstrosity of the Marina Bay Sands hotel. Around us bubble, hiss and gurgle dozens of pans, woks and bamboo steamers loaded with Japanese, Indonesian, Korean, Cantonese and Malay specialties. Red labels on every booth proclaim that every establishment under that particular roof received top marks for cleanliness, food safety and quality. Singapore: the only place in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kilometres where you can set about drinking the melted ice scooped in your plastic tumbler without so much of a thought about the trots.
Everything, here, is manicured. Orchids grow in flowerpots. Neat vines sneak up the concrete pillars of flyovers and highways in such orderly fashion that you’d think they’ve been planted that way. Inside a futuristic bubble, built on land reclaimed from the sea, an ecosystem capable of generating its own cloud steals the breath of children and adults alike with its perfect beauty whilst, a stone’s throw away, the man-made cliffs of Marina Bay Sands rise to the skies, its inner atrium reminiscent of a Marseillais HLM, just with four-digit room rates and champagne on sale at $200 the bottle on the rooftop bar. Even the campsite for penny-pinching tourists erected along the shoreline on East Coast park is, to quote from a well-represented fast food chain, “Tip-Top”.
I’m a cynic. Tell me something’s perfect, and I’ll doubt you. Tell me something’s flawless, and I’ll be calling it. Tell me something’s got nothing to hide, and I’ll go around lifting the carpet to check for the dust swept under there. Singapore, I reason one night as the skyline shimmer outside the bedroom windows and enormous lightning run from one stratocumulus to another, has to have one such carpet.

A bus ride offers some insight. Despite having an uncanny resemblance to the 94 bus to Acton Green – same double decker coach, same interiors, same seats – the ads plastered on the inside and of the outside of the no. 14 bus can’t be more different from London’s Routemasters. There is nothing claiming the virtues of junk food, apps doing exactly the same job of a massive CRM system for a fraction of the price, or the latest Old Vic play: the two adverts stickered at eye level on the frigid main deck of this Singaporean bus are warnings. Calls to exert caution against cybersex in exchange for online payments and other scams coming, inevitably, from abroad. Outside, as we notice once we alight and the bus drives past us, a giant-sized photograph has been plastered on the side of the vehicle. It shows a multi-storey building engulfed in flames and thick black smoke, out of which three obviously alarmed yuppies are fleeing. A fourth man in shirt sleeves and burgundy tie indicates something with a steely gaze worth of John Wayne, a pose that reminds me of the statue of Augustus in Rome’s Forum. Below the slogan read something like Be prepared. Our response matters. Not even London, where the IS morons had emerged from the gutters three times lately, thinks necessary to peddle this heavily fear propaganda.
My hosts both are recruiters. One evening, they speak about the traipsing of their work, of what it means to be the ones shovelling new resources into the thousands of businesses that make this island nation the economic hotspot it is. They talk, in desperate tones, of the local youth, so pampered and unaware of the workings of the outside world to fail in almost comical levels of farce. The guy who gave away his company’s secrets after just a drink with a savvy competitor in a Manila bar. The one who forgot to the delete the name of the candidate from the CV sent to the client, effectively making the recruiter useless. The other guy who succeeded in getting his company card cloned by giving it to a stranger he’d just met. Examples, sure, behaviours undoubtedly common the world over, but those were, they argue, symptoms of a new generation of Singaporeans grown in economic abundance, total protection. A generation scared of setbacks, afraid of having to fight for something, imbibed with propaganda magnifying the dangers of anything that lurked outside their nation, where everything was safe and ‘tip-top’.
Peppered around the city are more reminders of this situation, advices against employing illegals, diseases carried from the hic sunt leones of Indonesia and Malaysia and, times and again, new warnings against the modern day’s favourite bogeyman, terrorism.
What is the purpose of this policy, besides the raising of an enfeebled generation that runs away, much to my friends’ dismay, from jobs after three weeks? I couldn’t quite grasp it until, on my final night, I pick up a leaflet from a MTR station rack. Printed by SG Secure, the nations’ police force, it is an encyclopaedia of street smartness and, crucially, shows a photo of a man, kneeling and in handcuffs, a couple of batons lying next to him and a cop standing in front of him, writing something in the characteristic pose of police officers worldwide. The caption below reads Rioting achieves nothing but caning and imprisonment. 
I board my flight and, as we climb out through the warm equatorial air, things feel clearer, so much so that I can even hear that leaflet’s soothing voice whispering, George Clooney-esque, in my ear. Enjoy the perfection, he said. Enjoy the parks, the spotless sidewalks, safe eateries and air-conditioned malls. Enjoy this tranquil safety, enjoy security teams taking straddling snails back in the undergrowth, enjoy all this regardless of how artificial and plasticky it sounds. Don’t rock the boat to much, he soothed in my mind. Enjoy this, unless you want our oasis, our comfy little red dot, to go to the dogs like the all the unspeakable hell-holes all around us. And, obviously, unless you want the cane and ten years in gaol.
I recline my seat as the plane leaves the red dot behind. As it does, I wonder how many Singaporeans actually buy the story.

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Singapore in technicolour.

Expat life. If there is such a thing, my half-a-week in Singapore, was precisely that. No sybaritic luxury and champagne breakfast; rather, restaurants on the East shore park, coconuts, cab rides even to do one kilometre and the shuffle heat-aircon-heat-aircon-pool in the condo. It smells boring, yet it’s a life that takes surprisingly little effort to adapt to. I’ll be back on the topic, but in the meantime here are a couple of snaps from the artificially-coloured corner of the city dedicated to “ethnic authenticity”.

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The future smells of pork noodles.

Five hours in the world’s largest city. Twenty-four million inhabitants, three times and change the size of Luxembourg, and all I’ve got is five hours to dip my toe in this behemoth of a pool. I walk out of Pudong Terminal 2’s arrivals, rolling superlatives on the tip of my tongue like the whisky I savoured before landing, the rock n’ roll breakfast. Eleven thousand buildings higher than thirty storeys. The second-tallest skyscraper in the world. Fourteen lines of metro, three hundred and sixty four stations, five hundred kilometres of tracks. The largest port in the world for container traffic. And I’ve got five hours – hang on, it’s taken a little while at passport control. I’ve now got four hours forty in Shanghai. It’s such a preposterous commitment that I cannot avoid feeling excited about it. It’s when you’re bound to fail that you can truly have fun.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
It’s odd to be gliding into town at the speed of four hundred and thirty kilometres per hour, suspended over the delicate interlocking of opposing magnetic fields alimented by strong electric current. Maglev, the technology of future, is already here in Shanghai, and it feels as if it’s been here a while. So long, in fact, that it’s had the time to grow a bit shabby. The concrete pillars on which we rumble are weather-worn. The white panels on the train have turned yellowish under the beating of the sun. The seat covers, so delightfully démodé in their fake-silk appearance, are creased and mangy. The cushions are sagging. Still, it’s clocking 430 km/h, the display shows, whilst the Piccadilly Line can’t manage a week without shivering, curling up into a tiny ball and dying for the day.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Exit six of Longyang metro station catapults me back a picture-perfect view of the world in future sense. This is the opening of Blade Runner with an optimist as director: cool breeze, blue sky in which puffy white clouds cruise and a parade of the most outlandish buildings ever designed not for use as background in Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City. I leave the last whiffs of sweet & sour pork in the bowels of the metro station, and climb upstairs.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
An elevated platform runs between the palisade of highrises, darting in and out of a shopping centre that smells of delicate eau de toilette, crammed with boutiques peddling Vertu phones and other brands that I don’t recognise but that, inevitably, exude prestige, finesse and price tags that I couldn’t afford getting near to, not even when declined in Yuans. I walk on, mouth gaping wide in awe, but luckily I’m not the only one. Chinese visitors – city burghers from the suburbs, tourists from inland, coarse hands and wind-swept faces – amble about and behave pretty much in the same way, save for shooting selfies in full-automatic bursts. Stacked against a backdrop of skyscrapers, pensioners toss away the umpteenth cigarette butt before giving their personal interpretation of Zoolander’s Blue steel another workout.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
The centrepiece of this whole zone is a triumvirate of giants. Jin Mao Tower is the tiniest of the lot, yet at three hundred and eighty meters and change it’s taller than anything in the whole of Western Europe; if it was a man, London’s Shard would barely scratch his armpits. Shanghai World Financial Centre is the largest bottle opener, a whole half a klick of glass and steel. Finally, the newly finished Shanghai Tower, a whole hundred meters taller than its neighbour. Fifteen years ago, not a single one of them existed. Fact is, fifteen years ago pretty much nothing of what is around me today existed. When you live in such a quickly accelerating city it’s easy to amble on Memory Lane, I reason, wondering whether the old man who’s puffing fags on my right is reminiscing about the old times when everyone just had a bicycle and a Mao-style pyjama. Or perhaps he’s just thinking about his doctor’s appointment.
Three queues – four, I beg your pardon – deliver me to the 118th floor of Shanghai Tower, following a ride on, as the bored-out-of-his-mind operator said, “the world’s fastest lift”. It’s good to know that, somewhere, there’s somebody measuring this sort of things. Sleek dark polished deck, floor-to-ceiling windows offer what real estate view would undoubtedly call ‘unparalleled views’ above the city larger than Luxembourg three times and change. Twenty-four million people huff and puff, wheel and deal, below us, together with the world’s largest container port. From up here the magnificent palisade of Pudong appears a collection of Lego.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Up above, around me, are dozens of other men and women. I hear Spanish being talked, together with Hebrew, German and English, but first and foremost it’s Chinese. Teenagers update their Instagram statuses, or whichever micro-blogging platform is in use over here, families put together a group photo, yoga clubs practice a choreography in front a photographer hired for the occasion. I, however, am drawn towards a group of four elderlies, three men and a lady, with their portable stools and walking sticks. They are perched against the glass in a direction facing away from the rest of the skyscrapers, away from the city centre, towards a rather nondescript slice of urban sprawl. I move on, liking to think they’re up here trying to locate the whereabouts of the old shikumen where they grew up.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
Another ride on the world’s fastest elevator, a quick dip in the metro and on the Maglev and I’m back to Pudong. Sitting on a metal chair I watch a family unfolding a studiously packed lunch, iPhone and other modern paraphernalia momentarily forgotten. As the smell of food floats through the terminal – inevitably, it’s again sweet & sour pork – I can’t help but reflecting that this family is as good a personification of Shanghai as it gets. Modern, bursting at the seams with cutting-edge technology but inhabited nonetheless by people, people with portable cookers where soy sauce and other ingredients slowly cook meat and noodles, people who still squat underneath the tall skyscrapers to pick up herbs, grown in studiously landscaped gardens, to be used in their grandparents’ recipes.
Click on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
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Shanghai stopover.

Five hours to kill before boarding for Singapore, one trip into town and the discovery that, out of all my music on the iPad, only one has survived an iOS update, many thanks Tim Cook. Still, it’s from Les Sages Poètes de la Rue. Somehow it fits with Pudong and even if it didn’t, it’s the only song I’ve got to listen to.
 La loi de la jungle tue, si tu es pas roi tu es perdu.

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Goodbye for now, Italy!

As with most good things (and luckily a fair few bad ones), it all must come to an end. On a nice day in September, the sky akin to Microsoft’s Windows 98 screen saver, we gave the car back to the Milan airport rental company and flew home. As cheesy as it might sound, the last record played by the car stereo before we turned it off one last time, 1,600 kms after we took it, was Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t stop. So, in true Grand Tour fashion (think the Amazon show, not the toffs heading to Italy to catch syphilis and cirrhosis), here’s a series of galleries of what we saw in the rest of our Tuscan journey. Just whistle don’t stop thinking about tomorrow as you flicker through them. As usual, open on any photo to start the slideshow.
Stormy Burano, a couple of views from Giudecca and a Canal Grande sunset, just because it’d be rude not to.
Ferrara, land of sweet accents, tan bricks and bicycles. It’s not a coincidence if Marco Pantani, the unforgettable Pirata, was born in this region.
Tuscany: San Giminiano, with its quirky art, tourists and painters; Pienza, smelling of Popery as the Protestants would say; Montalcino and its Siena Republic’s sign, and finally San Quirico.
And at last, Siena. Where the Contrade are the real deal.
That’s it from Italy. It’s been great to come back and visit.
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Chaos theory applied to abbeys.

Sometimes you don’t make it, sometimes you break it. Ian Malcom explained it in Jurassic Park, circa 1993. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine. 
A single valley, two abbeys, the same Medieval overlords. One – Sant’Antimo – is still busy, its nave echoing with recorded Gregorian chants, its Benedictine monks officiating mass at least twice a day, a shop selling honey and beer and olive oil. The other, San Galgano, is a different matter.

We are alone in the car park. We hardly met anyone on the road either, heavy downpours our only companions. The hills stop the radio reception and, after a few minutes of static, we’ve turned it off. My mind plays a song telling the story of Sarajevo’s library fire. Apt.

Galgano Guidotti, to quote from the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, was a man before he was a saint, and a had a lot to answer to the Almighty by the time their meeting would’ve been due. Death, murder, rape and pillage to be precise, part and parcel of the job description of a medieval knight. Mindful of that, one fine day in the mid-to-late XII century Galgano sunk his sword in a stone, where it still stands, and became a hermit. Cistercian monks followed suit.

We are the first in the Abbey. Birds echo through the open windows and doors of the chapter house. A busload of pensioners from Ferrara was inbound, but still they linger outside, their driver being reprimanded by the ticket staff for having parked his behemoth too close. A diesel engine starts, the bus driving away.

San Galgano Abbey quickly made a name for itself. It became the largest landholder in the area, giving work to hundreds of monks and families. It appeared in Siena’s records; initially sporadically, then frequently as the spiritual power of the abbey grew increasingly political.

A cobbled path led away from the chapter house into the church. A side door opened in the flank of the giant building.


A hundred meters long, San Galgano’s abbey church stands empty, its roof the frowning Tuscan sky. Pebbles creak below us, pigeons flutter from one window to the other, wind drafts dance from mullions to trifore whence stained glass had broken away centuries before us.

It’d happened quickly. In 1328 a famine hit the abbey, then twenty years later came plague. The Black Death didn’t decimate the population; it cut it by four-fifths.  Those who survived then had to deal with marauding armies of mercenaries. At the turn of the century only eight monks remained. Less than two centuries later, San Galgano was abandoned.
What could possibly explain the demise of San Galgano and not of the other tens of abbeys, nunneries and monasteries dotting the hills of Siena province? Surely there were political, economic, sociologic reasons behind the abbey’s death. Wrong choices, scarce resilience, perhaps its fame accelerated its demise. Or, perhaps, it was as simple as a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking.

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Of the intrinsic beauty and harmonious forms of Tuscan hills.

I come from a region where the land is alternatively very flat – filled with rice paddies, corn fields and factories – or very mountainous. There’s really not much of an alternative; it’s either flat as a ruler or climbs to 2,000 meters in 5 km. So, whilst I appreciated the generic idea of rolling hills in Tuscany, crowned by cypresses and dotted with manors where the likes of Sting can wear red trousers and savour the fruit of his hectares of Sassicaia, it always felt a bit mythical to me, like finding an Audi driver that won’t tailgate on the motorway, or a solicitor that won’t overcharge you. You get the idea.
Then I found this.

Now, I will admit that this isn’t the most flattering of the photos – and how could it be, considered I did it whilst clocking a tad bit more than the 70 advertised on that funny round sign over there – but it was the first sighting that, yes, the Sting-manor-Sassicaia scenario could indeed be real. It’s an ugly photo, but bear with me, for it contains everything I was to admire for the following days. A sky dotted with clouds. Light playing around on the nude hill-sides. The soft contours of the land, making them almost alive, like the muscle of some sleeping beast. Empty roads. It only could get better.
Outside San Quirico d’Orcia lied a small chapel, Vitaleta. If you Google it, like we did, you’ll find a sequence of images as Tuscan as a half cigar, a glass of potent red or a swearword involving the Virgin Mary, poisonous snakes and some lady of ill repute (seriously). So one day, nice and early, that’s where we went. For a while it was only us, the bees, a tractor far away, some insects and a posse of swallows dive-bombing to feast on the flying bugs.

And there she was. In typical Are We There Yet? fashion we’d arrived from the wrong way, getting to see the back of the chapel rather than the more august front, but I’ve never been one for doing things properly, ever. The air was warm yet not oppressively so, the sky echoed with the shrills of the birds and a faint breeze brought some distant smell of vegetation. Far to the west massive clouds rolled around, bringing the large thunderstorms that were to hit us later in the evening. I wondered with apprehension at the erosion on the hills; I’d just discovered them and didn’t feel them to be turned into yet another copy of Vercelli province.

I shouldn’t have worried. The glorious Tuscan hills continued in all directions throughout Val d’Orcia, and perhaps even further. Some donned a thick shawl of bushes and trees, some stood bare-shouldered, some were half-and-half. A few had some lucky person’s house plucked on top, many a whole village and a couple a luxury resort where the likes of Sting could host their friends should they ever run out of visitors’ rooms. All of them were a beauty to behold and a joy to drive around.
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Venezia people watching.

I came to Venezia expecting it to be a slightly less polished version of EuroDisney, a Hogwarts-styled theme park caught in a flood, inhabited only by visitors brandishing iPhones and Instagram accounts named “Eat-Pray-Love89”. As it turned out, that wasn’t to be the case and we found the delicate, sing-along sounding Venetian accent echoing pretty much everywhere we went.
Please note I’ve written sounding. Venetians – and the Veneti, those from the wider Veneto region – are amongst Italy’s most prolific swearers, so much so that cursing could be considered a form of art over there. Pets, uncles, deities, mothers, retarded nephews; nothing is safe from a torrential burst of profanities in Veneto, and it’s done with such naturalness, spontaneity and flair that even the most upright of the toffs wouldn’t be able to take offence at that. And if he did, then he’d better return whence he’d come from.
Epithets aside, people-watching in Venezia turned out to be remarkably more interesting than I’d ever thought, and it took us along routes we’d never thought. We might’ve been sitting in Calle Scaleta, looking at the house whence one Marco Polo left for his China, and we’d casually eavesdrop on the conversation taking place in the cicchetteria where we were drinking spritz, about the acqua alta SMS not being sent, or the app not sending notifications for yesterday’s tide surge.
We took the poor man’s gondola, the No. 1 ACTV vaporetto along the Canal Grande, after having witnessed, amongst hysteric bursts of laughter, a blonde youth cursing the helmsman of the boat he’d just missed (together with his dog, the boat and the omnipotent) in a remarkably feat of freestyle dissing. We chugged along the Canale, past manors where Mazzini, Wagner and Byron lived, died or both. Around us, city life took to the waters: gondole, speedboats, even the fire brigade cruised along the Canale. At the helm of their boats Venetians developed even more swagger, more savoir-faire, than the impressive amount already displayed by their countrymen whilst at the wheel of an Audi – on the fast lane, that goes without saying – of the A4 motorway.
Once back on the ground we stalked a Romanian couple’s nuptial photoshoot. It turned out the groom wasn’t too keen on being photographed by anyone but the contracted artist.
Terra firma – as firm as it could be on these islands made of tree trunks stuck into the lagoon – was also where the water commuters ended when they weren’t busy sailing, smooth and cool like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. Even without their feet wet, I had to concede, they looked no less at ease.
Murano and Burano, off Venezia proper, were provincial Italy meets the lagoon. Men stopped for an impromptu chat whilst their dogs sniffed around at their feet. Suited and booted art dealers stood outside their gallerias, awaiting the impending stream of tourist to come. Pensioners stood on the doorstep of their homes, whilst tourists snapped photos of one another on the bridges linking one pavement to the other. In the corners, tacky adverts – because all ads in smalltown Italy have an element of tackiness in them – flapped in the wind together with the day’s laundry.
Back in Venezia, men ambled along the windswept walkways running besides the Canale della Giudecca. Kids, too, made an appearance; free from the day’s lessons at school they ran around on hoverboards or, more traditionally, they played football in the square.

In the meantime, by the fish market, a small dog was finding all this way too dramatic.

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Delirious Venezia.

Thirty-one years, all of which in possess of a passport marked “Repubblica Italiana”, and I had never been to Venezia. I visited Hanoi, Dušanbe and Charlotte, North Carolina, but never made it to the city at the end of the Veneto lagoon. That had to change somehow.

Venezia brought memories of Istanbul by the bucketful. Not just because of the spontaneity of waterborne commuting, or because of obvious historic ties, but for me it was because of something else. Much like many of Istanbul’s neighbourhoods – Fener, Balat, Galata, Kuzguncuk – Venezia’s sestieri seemed designed to get lost into, and we very much obliged.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Roads made of smooth stone slabs, bridges of bricks and granite. Green water, mould-patched walls from which windows of all shapes and sizes opened. Spun roundels, semi-circular, lancet or ogee: all sort of arcs were present in Venezia, often in the same building. This architectural mixing, intertwining and crossbreeding was a fitting similitude for what happened here on many fronts. Placed as it was at the busiest crossroads of the world, Venezia made the world theirs.
Rarely crossing paths with other tourists – or any other pedestrian, for that matter – we began noticing details. Everything, not just commuting, happened on water. Supermarket deliveries, taxi services, rubbish collection – with recycling ferociously adhered to – and all those wheelings and dealings that, anywhere else, would be accomplished by marauding white vans happened, in Venezia, by boat.

Because, after all, Venezia was a real city. Or, as the green banner say, una vera città.

Walking around Dorsoduro, Sant’Elena or even Rialto, it was hard to think Venezia could ever be submerged by tourists, but one needn’t scouting too hard to find apt clues of their passage. In Italy the No-Tutto “no to everything” season hadn’t gone away yet, but for once the No Grandi Navi was a campaign I could subscribe to, especially after seeing mammoth cruise ships trundle along the Giudecca canal.

Details continued to bounce to our eyes. Slowly, Venezia reveals another side of her – because, like Istanbul, Venezia is a she, a great dame – character. A quirky note, made of street art: irreverent and subtly critical art, taking as many forms as one could wish or imagine, and then some more. For instance, it could be a jest aimed at the American presence in Vicenza and Aviano, Saluti da Vicenza, “Greetings from Vicenza” says the bombing airplane.

Or it could be a caricature of those tourists who clog only selected piazze and calli.
Modern economy didn’t escape the hand of the unnamed artist. The euro has now replaced Mark the Evangelist’s Gospel, and the lion sported a sinister, reptile, grin. Euro tuum vitae meae.

It wasn’t a recent phenomenon either. Past and present of street art intermingled, and nowhere this was more visible than in a piazza where an indie drawing had been sticked above a faded hammer and sickle, all within spitting distance from a church parvise. It didn’t get any more Italian than that.

Sometimes it was art for the sake of art, perhaps with a nod to the city’s past, such as the pigeon wearing the Plague Doctor’s mask. And why not? It didn’t necessarily have to be political, or denouncing this or that. I found myself liking these little chef d’oeuvres intensely, for they added a subdued, unobtrusive touch of beauty to hidden corners of a city that had plenty of the good stuff.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Walking the Ghetto Nuovo, a mere teenager at 501 years of age, we wondered whether street art didn’t date any older than the last decade, whether today’s stickers, drawings and photos were indeed a baton passed from previous centuries, a tradition spanning ages, cultures and religions.
Whatever the answer, street art seemed positively alive and kicking in Venezia. And when streets ended and canals began, it did what everyone else in town did: it, too, took to the water.

 

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Disaster by design: the death and partial rebirth of the Aral Sea (Part 3).

I’d expected the whistling undertaker from For a Fistful of Dollars to be appearing at every corner I turned. I was to experience this feeling again, in Central Asia, but Aralsk looked – even smelt, if that was ever possible – the part of a Sergio Leone Western village before a Mexican stand-off.
It was two in the afternoon and the thermometer app on my phone chirped happily that it was +38 Celsius and that I should stay hydrated and get some sunscreen on. A hot breeze blew dust from the sidewalks into the street. Buildings and trees drew shadows so neat that I could only guess, not see, the men squatting in the shadows of the Aral Hotel, boarded up like I expected. A boy, looking like an extra in a Japanese cartoon, peddled past me. Nothing else stirred.
A gate with a lock led to the smallest city park I’d ever seen. Four benches along a path, two of which in the shadow, and both laden with elderly men staring impassibly at me. The path led past them and then turned left; Serik told me to follow it. I nodded to the men and walked on. A rather incongruous log house, of the kind one’d be expecting to see in the tundra, lied to the left. The city’s museum, shut. Around it, painted gaudily in the colours of a Russian flag, were three fishing boats, monuments to the dead harbour which, as Serik promised, lied just behind.
A tall concrete wall severed the port from the city itself but here, behind the boat, was an unlikely first row seat to the oddest spectacle, a prime spot to witness what sort of plague mankind could be when it really gave it its damnest.
Aralsk harbour descended quickly from the margin where I stood. How deep? Six, eight, ten meters? It arched wide into a vast gulf that then opened to a sea that wasn’t there yet – or anymore – depending on your level of optimism. On the near side stood the two cranes I’d seen before, together with store rooms and depots. On the far side the gutted shell of the cannery rusted away quietly, a testament to the thousands of fishing jobs deemed less valuable than those brought by cotton. A few meters away from me, a handful of cows munched serenely on the scrubs growing on the harbour’s slope.
As I stood there watching my mind brought me to an episode of my childhood. It was a winter evening and my mum and I had gone to the local pool to pick up my brother from his swimming practice. It was a day as different from today as it could be – cold, misty, dark, with lampposts glowing yellow in the fog – and we were early.
The pool complex had been built in the 1920s, in a rigorous Fascist style and, were it not for the music in the café where we waited, the flipper in the corner and the fact that any possible memory of the Ventennio had been chiselled away from the walls, you could still think to be in that period, when children were expected to be men in all but height.
The café, where mum and I waited, looked directly above the empty Olympic swimming pool. To my five-year-old eyes the sloping depths of the pool and its glistening porcelain perfection felt endless, mysterious and somewhat menacing. It was a feeling I wasn’t to taste again until some 25 years later, as I stood on the cusp of Aral’s dried-up harbour.
How could that happen? How was it possible for a port to run dry, for a sea to all but disappear and for the Book of Revelations to add a new chapter without anyone raising concerns, pounding the alarm or demonstrating dissent? I asked that to Serik, and I was immediately, politely, reminded that I was matching a democracy with an autocratic police state. Concerns had been raised, medical reports – especially from Uzbekistan’s Karalpakstan district – urgently raised, but no action was taken from Moscow. Cotton was deemed to be too strategic and, besides, the USSR’s environmental record was appalling anyway. “The decline of the Aral Sea was expected and [the cotton policy was] deemed a positive outcome” wrote Kristopher White in the Journal of Eurasian Studies. And that, as they say, was that.
I ate at one of the two restaurants recommended by Serik. A nondescript house without so much of a sign, standing opposite the Aral Hotel. The menu filled three pages of dense Cyrillic but only a handful of items were available; still, the chicken was tender and flavourful, the vegetables fresh and the fries had been cut and cooked by hand, rather than coming straight out of an industrial frozen pack. I felt the other clients’ gaze – all six of them – for the whole time. It was neither threatening nor hostile, just laden with curiosity and unasked questions. I felt it whilst I tucked into the chicken, the vegetables and the fries. I felt it as I dipped the hard bread into the meat sauce. I felt them looking at me as I drank Tassay water from the bottle, forgetting the glass left beside the plate by the gold-toothed waitress. And, as I stood up, gave a crumpled 1000 tenge note and waved away the change I felt them registering my every move.
I ambled about the deserted main square for a while, eyeing the I Love Aral sign and the monument to the glorious dead of the 1941-45 conflict, the list of name impossibly long for such a small place, as is the case in almost every ex-Soviet village I visited. Somewhere to my right, a train siren blew. Two women walked across the square.

Aralsk continued half-heartedly towards the railway station, a mixture of horticultural splendour and post-industrial decay. Neat flowerbeds ran parallel to the road along which I walked, drinking the last sips of the Tassay and kicking up dust, past statues holding enormous tulips and flower bouquets. A picture perfect bandstand lied prettily amongst delicate rose bushes in full bloom, a path leading to a statue depicting a gigantic one tenge coin. Behind them, the outer wall and gutted shell of a factory quietly crumpled away.
A nightclub was up next; it was shut down, for it was way too early, but still looked seedy enough with its promises of VIP lounges. It was followed by a mosque, the one whose minarets I’d seen from the overpass in the morning, ill-fitting gold-plated tiles glimmering on its dome and minarets. A crowd stood on the shady steps of the attached community centre, and they all turned round to look at my passing like spectators to the smallest, slowest Tour de France ever. I nodded at them and brought my right hand over my heart; they all responded in kind.
It was hot outside, but it was even hotter in my room. A white air conditioning unit had been mounted, protruding incongruously out of the dark green-and-brown tapestry, but no amount of cajoling succeeded in getting it to work; the air remained immobile, stifling and still. I felt I could hear the sound of drops of sweat working their way through the coating of dust and salt that had covered me like a shroud. I left again, seeking breeze and shadow.
The station’s first platform promised both as well as the unexpected spectacle of two men guiding a cow across the tracks and into the building, but it also came with the company of a woman who decided I was to be the audience of her stream of consciousness. I sat next to her listening to a deluge of Kazakh I couldn’t understand, but for a few words. “Nursultan Nazarbayev”. “Rossyia”. “Sit down my friend”. On and on she went, waving her hands and smiling, whilst my eyes ran up and down her arms where dozens of thin parallel scars ran from side to side of her sun-tanned skin. Eventually a train arrived and she boarded. Aralsk station plunged back deep into silence.
Saturday night in Aralsk. As the sun fell the nightclub opened, not looking any less seedy than it was before; both restaurants I’d been recommended were, instead, shut. A crowd of thirty-or-so teenagers congregated at the railway station square, below the wooden galleon. They didn’t bother checking me out as they set up a sound system based out of an impeccably kept, aubergine-purple Lada sedan and began dancing to the hardbass blasting out of the car’s open windows and doors. I went to sleep with that unlikely lullaby, and it still went on when I left the Altair at 5 AM, heading for the station.
Aralsk disappeared into darkness as I fashioned a comfy cocoon out of my third-class berth. I arrived in town without a clear expectation of what was waiting in store, and even now as the train rolled out I wasn’t too sure I understood what I’d seen. Images of yesterday played through my mind like diapositive. The shores of the Sea, birds: rebirth, recovery, the future. Aqespe, Aralsk: abandonment, disaster, the past. The villages, I reasoned as I was lullabied into a deep sleep by the swaying train, reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino: a man reacting to hardship not by becoming mournful and mellow but, rather, by turning tough, tougher than he’d thought he could ever be. And I couldn’t deny feeling a pinch of admiration for that.
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