Ever wondered what do those London neighbourhoods are like?

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

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

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

Yep. In my rather nondescript neighbourhood there’s space for a home entirely covered in mosaic including a mermaid, an octopus, a few skulls, a kind of Kali Goddess, Hokusai’s Great Wave and a denunciation of capital punishment (see the Keep the faith heart?), inhabited by a quirky family who I heard playing great acid jazz at 2 AM during a house party. And everyone else seem to be just happy that they are around.
Posted in London, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

In memory of Mr Voghera.

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

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

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

The night raid to Billingsgate.

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

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

“Wild Coast. Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge”, by John Gimlette, Profile Books

Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana: raise your hands if you can recite, by heart – and no Googling, I can see you – their capitals.
Not a clue? Well, I honestly doubt there’ll be many, amongst the few who’ll stumble across this, to know them. Because, frankly, how many of us have ever pored over maps depicting the coastline that sort of prevents the Caribbean from spilling into the Amazon, and thought Mmmh, I wonder what’s happening over there? Not many, I guess. Ah, by the way, it’s Georgetown – Paramaribo – Cayenne. The capitals, I mean.
Anyhow, a fine chap called John Gimlette had. Wondered, I mean. And not only he has, but he also decided to get down there and have a look around to see what’s what. The result is a gem of a book, flamboyant in his cover (the UK edition I have features a delightfully naïf street scene on the front and a lush forest one on the back). In it Gimlette – who, it must be said, has a flair for obscure destinations and irresistible titles (Theatre of Fish, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig) manages not only to introduce these three rather unknown countries (well, two-and-a-half, French Guiana is still very much French) but also does it in such a way that it’s impossible, once you put Wild Coast down, not to feel a bit miffed that these countries never crossed your radar, because quite a lot had happened there.
In facts, the more I ventured into the book, the more it felt as if this forgotten corner of the world had scooped up whatever weird, tragicomic and outright scandalous happened in the rest of the globe, sprinkled it with LSD and then doused it on itself with gay abandon. Faced with such a cornucopia of oddities, the average writer’s legs would shiver, the hands would turn as wobbly as raspberry gelatine and his otherwise orderly prose would get as tangled and babbling as Donald Trump’s delivery any time he needs to put two sentences together.
Not Gimlette, though. His true gift, something I’d give a leg to possess, is the capability of mixing the past – with its history packed with incompetent adventurers, homicidal planters, doomsday cults, rioting slaves, imported communities of Vietnamese montagnards and much more – with his own adventures, jumping effortlessly from the history of maroon communities in Suriname to his own visit of these elusive villages. All without sounding like a boring git.
For months, intrigued by the tale of a distant relative who set off from Western Canada to basically rot alive in an unknown river in Guyana, Gimlette hoofs and hops along roads, mud tracks, rivers and turbulent air, following Welsh immigrants in the Guyanese outback, stalking warring tribes along the mysterious Surinamese rivers and poking even into the heart of darkness of the French republic, a system of prisons so dire that even Lavrentiy Beria would’ve said “Well, that’s a bit rich”. Interspersed are interludes in cities that could be as joyful as postal cards from the Dutch Antilles, or as rough as a tropical version of a Western frontier outpost, but always, regardless, interesting.
The result is a book as colourful as its cover, as entertaining as it is instructive, effortlessly erudite, ironic but also supported by a decidedly strong moral compass. The little biography on the author says he lives in London and practices as a barrister; well, this might be a first for me, but John Gimlette is the only lawyer I’d like to be sitting next to on a train or flight and hope he’s in a chatty mood.
Posted in Books review | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

La Amazonia No Se Vende.

I blame it on the Piccadilly Line. You see, living in London makes you think that every other city’s public transportation system will move at the same speed as the unwieldy web of train lines that huffs and puffs beneath the ground of the UK’s capital. It was then a surprise when, by the time I raised my eyes from the newspaper I’d brought from the airport,  I found out I’d overshot Sol, where I was meant to have an appointment, and was indeed getting near to Embajadores, two stations down. Things were indeed quicker than on the Metropolitan line, I thought with a smirk as I alighted.
The most practical-minded of travellers would’ve simply changed platform and hopped on a train going the opposite direction, but I chose otherwise. Studying a map I decided that Sol and Embajadores lied at a close distance between one another – barely a thumb separated them, I measured – and considered to go overland. It was something I frequently attempted in London, mostly to be met with utter failure. Up I went.
Between me and Sol was an old acquaintance, Lavapiés. The streets were more vivacious than I remembered and there weren’t riot vans disgorging marauding police officers like last time; still, a few things remained the same. The same varied humanity, the same jumble of shops of all kinds and, finally, the same vibrant street art.
I walked up a cobbled street, aiming loosely for Tirso de Molina, singing between half-closed lips a cumbia that I’d heard for the first time on a colectivo between Cuzco and Ollantaytambo, in Peru. Deprived of a phone capable of having Shazam it’d taken me months to track it, but eventually I succeeded. Surprisingly enough, Chicha Libre were all gringos, but still, their Primavera en la selva sounded like the real deal, and locals were evidently digging it. En la selva amazónica no hay primavera it repeated, mantra-like, and so did I, thinking of the Amazon rainforest I’d seen from high up, from a plane. En la selva amazónica no hay primavera. There’s no spring the Amazon forest.
It’s at that point that I saw the little indio, plastered on a wall in company of a pill making the tu es loco gesture, an All-Seeing-Eye with wings and tiny legs, the silhouettes of two boys playing hide-and-seek and, obviously, a sort of Pinocchio surmounted by the word seven. Still, the reflection of the morning sun didn’t quite allow me to read what it said. On I walked. En la selva amazónica no hay primavera. 
Another junction provided shade and a better view of the young indigenous girl. Serious, adorned with amulets and tribal face paintings, she looked at me from the other side of the road, the writing below her stern gaze proclaiming La Amazonia No Se Vende. The Amazon’s not for sale.
The phrase reminded me of something of my university years. The faculty of Modern Letters had a La Amazonia no se vende: se defiende exhortation spray-painted on its walls for a while, a brief international interlude amongst the usual invective against cops and the G7; a slogan that I tried, without success, to marry up to the Inti Illimani’s El pueblo unido. But it didn’t say anything else to me besides that.
Later, meeting done, I was back at the airport. Barajas had recently, reluctantly, joined the 21st century and begrudgingly  started offering free Wi-Fi. Ignoring the steadily climbing tally of emails in Outlook, I took it to Google and searched for my little Amerindian face. I found her on walls all across the Hispanic world, from Mexico to Madrid, a web of visual connections originating far away, in the Peruvian Amazon.
Her life as an unnamed symbol started in 2008, with the first Amazonian strike. Huelga amazónica. Amerindians from the Peruvian region of Loreto, in August of that year, took it to the streets to protest against their government. The reason? The articles did delve into that, but just seeing the region’s seal, featuring an oil derrick, offered a hint.
Oil and gold were the new scourges of a region whose indigenous population that had been already subject to ostracism, forced relocation and murder campaigns by settlers. The government, they lamented, had given carte blanche to companies to build highways, oil fields, mines, hydroelectric dams, with little if any regard to the safeguard of the environment. Pollution ran down the rivers and into the bloodstream of the indigenous tribes; in one of them, the Achuar, 90% of the populace was found to be suffering from heavy metal poisoning.
Again in 2009, the people of the jungle went on strike. Two months of occupation erupted in clashes when the army broke the picket lines in Bagua region, resulting in 30 deaths amongst police officers and civilians.
How did it end? Alas, I don’t know. With my embarrassingly bad Spanish it took almost one hour to read half a page and, by the time boarding started, I’d only arrived to 2013, when one of the Amerindians organisations, named Aidesep, signed a contract with Petrobras – yes, the same company behind the corruption tsunami that had swallowed two presidents in Brazil – to ensure cooperation between communities and developers. The article ended wondering if this deal was for the greater good, or whether it’d end up with a few lining their pockets with plentiful baksheesh, leaving the destitute firmly at square one. I didn’t know the answer as I boarded the plane home, and I don’t know today, but if I was a betting man I know where I’d put my cash.
Posted in Europe, Politics, Public Transportation, Spain | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Somebody’s just started quite a journey.

…No, not me. But a plucky mannequin, inevitably called Spacemanhas just left the Cape aboard a red, electric Tesla roadster car, bound for an orbit around the Sun and a close encounter with Mars. I’m talking about the payload of  SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy maiden mission, whose launch I’ve followed with the same giddy excitement of a child on Christmas Eve, or myself a few weeks ago when I visited the Johnson Space Center.
Want to see what I mean? Click the video below and marvel at the beauty of what 6,000 geeks have accomplished. If the image of the two boosters landing in perfect synchrony is an omen of our future, I can’t wait to get there.
Godspeed, Spaceman.

Posted in Odd ones out, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

“I’ve Got Ninja Style Kung-Fu Grip”.

“Keep Austin weird” is, according to a brochure I happened to read some time ago, this city’s strapline. It sounds somehow artificial, not only because it was coined, as it turned out, by a group of lobbyists named the Independent Business Alliance; but, also, because it is objectively hard to put my finger on what, exactly, makes this place “weird”.
Sprawl spreads unchecked all around a city centre ringed by highways. A flourishing of skyscrapers of questionable sizes and shapes sprouts where you’d expected the centre to be, with hotel chains – W, Fairmont, Hilton, JW Marriott, Sheraton, Four Seasons, Hyatt – so ubiquitous to generate sympathy for the only two banks – Bank of America, Chase – that dared flying their flag there.
But, perhaps, there is something. It’s not the 6th Street bars strip, for every city has one, and it’s not even SXSW, because of the same reason, albeit less frequently. It’s not the Texan Lone Star, merged with the Gay Pride rainbow flag, fluttering above a closed for the day.
Courtesy winged_wonderer.
It’s an Ai Weiwei sculpture made of hundreds of chrome bicycles, dizziness-inducing in its splendour. It’s a girl jogging along the lake embankment, a T-shirt proclaiming, “I support planned parenthood” written across her chest. It’s the fact that I’m the only one to take notice of it.
Courtesy winged_wonderer
In a world of Madrids and Berlins, I’m doubtful whether Austin would make it on the list, but when your peers are Fort Worth or Birmingham then perhaps, yes, Austin is “weird”, in an American teenager sort of way.
Downtown’s ordinate grid of streets descends in good order from Texas’ State Capitol to the lake. The Capitol itself is what you’d expect from such a building and, a welcome change from the usual white-plaster cliché, is granite-burgundy. Built by migrants and convict labour, it’s flanked by a monument to the emancipation of Texas’ African Americans. I take my turn to photograph it after Indian families and groups of Stetson-wearing Latinos. As the shutter whirrs and buzzes I think at the black tour guide I’d heard lecturing a group of Asian tourists on 6th Street of how, when he was a boy, the Ritz was the only theatre allowing black punters.
Turtles, cormorants and seagulls jostle for space on a floating barrier on the lake, next to the beautiful lakeside walk. The walkway, sneaking in and out of the vegetation, didn’t feel very Texan, or at least it didn’t seem to fit very much with my own preconception of the state – desert, pump-jacks and 10-lane-speedways. Chinese tourists snap photos of each other against the skyline; tiny mamacitas chirp Christmas greetings into phones plugged to their ears, wishing love to “Mi hermosa”. Three friends in hats, leather gilets and trucker moustache inspect the crab shack.
“Move over bitch. Get out of the way you son of a bitch” yells a homeless man as he careens on a bicycle a good three meters away from us.
The median income for a family in Austin is $54,091 per annum. In spite of that, 14% of the population here lives below the poverty line. According to an estimate, one Austin resident every thousand is estimated to be homeless.
To see how big one in a thousand is, all I had to do was to look at the I-35 overpass by the Shell petrol station just south of the Sheraton Hotel. Whilst three men beg by the slip road, another hundred or so sleep rough beneath the Interstate. Another contingent does the same by the Salvation Army’s office, one block off 6th Street’s bars.
On Christmas Day it’s only us on the pavements. Us, and men and women politely asking for a dollar. I haven’t been enough on these shores to be numbed by the dimensions of the problem of homelessness in the world’s biggest economy, so I quite can’t shake the image away. In my mind, the figures huddled in sleeping bags beneath the overpass merge with the footage of scared villagers taking shelter in their cars after an earthquake in Umbria, uncertain of whether an aftershock will send their medieval homes crumbling down. But no tremors shake the Texan land whilst I’m there.
A remembrance tree laden with origami and two plaques spearhead the efforts to raise awareness on the problem. But it’s deeply laden with meaning, I reflect, that a Bible has been left on a bench next to them. As if it was meant to say that only Him could solve the problem. And, perhaps, not even Him.
Dogs are the undisputed masters of the piece of lake shore straddling between the Hyatt and the rusting bridge where somebody’d risked his neck to stand on a narrow, crumpling ledge to spray-paint two Pac-Man ghosts and the rather cryptic message “I’ve got ninja style kung-fu grip”. Oblivious to its meaning – or perhaps all too aware of it, but unwilling to share it with this visitor – Alsatians battle with Labradors to retrieve bright plastic Frisbees, spaniels go sniffing setters’ butts and pugs oversee proceedings as if they’d already figured everything out a long time ago, something I always suspected but never quite been able to demonstrate.
Meanwhile, an ersatz Rodriguez jams with another guy that could pass for a young Tony Hawk impersonator.
Keep Austin weird.
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A tale of two missions. Part 2.

It was just appropriate that, in line with the general low-key-feeling of the entire place, the next stop in our tour looked a lot like grandpa’s barn meets serial accumulator’s shack, if one was willing to ignore the fact that the thing was a good hundred-meters long and had one side painted with the outline of a Saturn V rocket, Star Wars-esque font included.
It is cliché to say that but I can’t deny that, as I entered through a side door, the thing lying on its side stole my breath. Not one for memorable words – NASA would never have chosen me to be the first one to step off that LEM ladder in July 1969 – I half muttered an imprecation in Italian, instantly grateful for the fact that almost no one, amongst those who’d decided to spend Christmas Eve looking at science instead of speaking with imaginary friends, knew the lingo.
Courtesy winged_wonderer.
I might be in a crowd of one, but it’s my firm belief that if every epoch, every era, every culture has its own masterpiece – Stonehenge, Giza’s pyramids, Parthenon, Roman aqueducts, Emam Alì mosque, Chichén Itzá – then ours did little better than this behemoth. Our fathers built a tower, 110-meters-tall, filled with 3.5 million litres of explosive stuff, capable of developing 3.4 million kg of thrust from its first stage only, and we sent it to a moving object in the sky 384,000 km away from us. It was assembled in a building so vast that clouds formed in it, it lifted 130 tons from the ground and reached a maximum speed of 65,400 km/h or 18 a second. Everywhere, from the delicate escape tower perched on top of the command module to the spidery wirings sprouting out of the third stage engine, are examples of the precision, scientific accuracy and utmost attention to detail that, both in good and bad ways, are the trademarks of our modern society.
Courtesy winged_wonderer.
A friend with good command of Russian and Ukrainian came to the rescue of my pathetic Cyrillic skills. BEHEPA meant Venus, and Venus-10 was a Soviet probe, no prizes to guess headed where. She launched in 1975, headed for our cloudy and hot neighbour, landing after 4 months of travel. It valiantly soldiered through a turbulent landing, took photos of the ground and took measurements of wind and rocks before it succumbed to the hellish, 400C temperatures of the planet. 
How did my pin manage to find itself, lone amongst many others, in a shop in the provincial backwater that was Dušanbe, I had no idea. I also ignored whether it was a rare find, a priceless memento or a dime-a-dozen piece of tat and, frankly, I didn’t care. The pin became my one of my luck charms, sitting in my backpack with other trinkets that proved that neither I nor the Irish, to adapt a quote from Stephen King’s “Dreamcatcher”, ever really got out of the bath of superstition in which we were born.
Courtesy NASA.
Mission banners hung from the ceiling, one for each Apollo leap, beginning with the tragic Apollo 1 which never got the chance to lift off. Apollo 8, though, is where I want to go. Arguably, it is my favourite: a mission of firsts, worthy of comparison with Magellan, with Hillary and Norgay, with Nansen. Borman, Lovell and Anders were the first of our specie to leave the Earth’s orbit. The first to dip their toes into inter-planetary space. The first to be sucked into another celestial object’s gravity well. The first to orbit the Moon and to see its dark side. If the genie of the lamp appeared and granted me the wish to join one mission, it’d have been that one and not Apollo 11. Apollo 8 was exploration, condensed.
It’s in that moment that I reminded myself of the small Tajik-Venusian pin in my backpack, sitting in a dark velvet pouch together with a compass, gift from my brother. I took it out and thought about taking a photo with the Saturn V in the background, a task way simpler in theory than in practice. Finally, it sorts of worked. A small hammer and sickle lapel poses in front of a flying building decked out with massive stars ‘n’ stripes. Bigots might find it provocative, a slap from the losers to the space race, but that wasn’t my intention (and, besides, it seemed that today’s audience was rigorously bigot-free. Christmas Eve has its uses, I guess).
Fact is, time and again, Russia’s and America’s space agencies cooperated whilst their leaders, through the decades up to now, squabbled, bickered, argued and name-called each other whilst fuelling proxy wars. In the meantime, scientists ignored the kids and continued working, often together. In facts, if anything, space exploration has helped putting nations and ethnicities together in the name of science, uniting when politics and religion divided; and please tell me if this isn’t another reason for space exploration, and Saturn V as its flag-bearer, to be a serious claim as our era’s masterpiece.
We left Houston with one more souvenir and that night, back at the hotel, I united with its colleague from afar. Apollo 8’s patch, the elegant figure of 8 showing the free-return trajectory, the symbol of the mission I’d so often read about, now sits in my backpack with Venus-10’s pin, the mission I knew nothing about until a chance encounter in a Dušanbe flea market. Different, yet united in their purpose.
Per aspera ad astra.
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A tale of two missions. Part 1.

The TsUM Magazin on Rudaki was rumoured, according to the chit-chat in the hostel, to be unbeatable in Dušanbe for Soviet tat, but once we’d gotten there it was pretty hard to figure out why. Ground floor was packed to the gunwales with stalls peddling mobile phones and associated paraphernalia, whilst the first floor, up a flight of stairs that reminded me of my elementary school’s building, traded in mildly repulsive wedding dresses. A young mother begged on the corridor, accepting the round bread I’d just bought in the bazaar.
The promised land of the hammer and sickle was indeed there, but took a while to be found. Sandwiched between a shop selling gaudy rugs and another doing a relatively modest trade in authentic, fake La-Z-Boy chairs was what we wanted to come and see. Memorabilia from the so-called Empire of Evil.
Austin to Houston, the satnav chirped, was 187 miles. Make it 200, I thought knowing my penchant for cocking it up even when tasked with the relatively simple job of following an arrow without crashing into other people or stationary objects. Four hundred miles return, a relatively long day on the road but one that, at least for me, was worth it.
Based on a body of evidence constituted by the film “Hell or High Water” and not much else, I expected Texas to be looking not too differently from the Kazakh steppe, save for the occasional oil pump jack taking another sip of crude and Ford pick-ups in lieu of Toyota Land Cruisers. Unsurprisingly, I was wrong. The I-10 sneaked through hills carpeted with gnarled and twisty oaks, peppered with ranches, Methodist temples offering “Cowboy Sunday Service” and herds of big-horned cows. The sight of La Grange, with the inevitable memories of ZZ-Top, and of a group of placid bison were met with a suitable degree of excitement.
Courtesy winged_wonderer.
The Soviet memorabilia shop was small, but so well stocked that it undoubtedly served as the mothership for that untold multitude of old, Ukrainian-plated Mercedes vans that appeared at any flea market in Northern Italy with their load of binoculars, Lomo cameras and inextinguishable supply of commemorative pins. If Antique Roadshow’s Fiona Bruce was a closet Communist, this place would’ve made her week.  
 An ethnic Kyrgyz stood, beaming like the genie of the lamp, behind the counter whilst four Russian youths in flip-flops and the inevitable Adidas shorts browsed the wares. They were clean-shaven and short-haired, the one Asian guy in the group sporting a large tattoo of a military symbol – crossed swords and so on – that belied their occupation, probably at one of the major Russian bases in Dušanbe or Kulob. They left shortly thereafter, Pioneers’ hankies wrapped around their necks, tokens from their fathers’ youth.
We began feeling Houston’s presence a lot longer before we actually saw it. Roads got larger and larger, sprouting an extra two, three, sometimes even four lanes of devilish concrete. Prefab boxes – offices, shops and fast food joints – lined the sides, garlanded with gigantic US and Lone Star flags fluttering in the wind. Spaghetti junctions soared above us in delicate choreographies, whilst Texans at the wheel of their pick-up trucks displayed such an ease for right-hand overtakes that would cause a Milanese white-van-driver to blush with embarrassment. Everyone, including us, made little note of the 65-mph limit and cruised at 80. It was curiously ironic to be feeling a sense of déjà-vu bringing me back to Isfahan, Iran.
Still, it wasn’t long before the Johnson Space Center emerged on NASA Parkway, hiding behind two T-38 jets perched atop steel pylons. I drove our rental car past them, succeeding in the rather hard task of missing the visitor’s entrance and trying to access a secure governmental facility through a phalange of campus police officers. Still, they were pretty nice about it and didn’t make use of their Tasers.
If space geekiness was a recognised field of study, I’d have an MS in Gemini and a PhD in Apollo; if a place was bound to make me and my kind fall into a state of semi-permanent priapistic excitation, that was the Johnson Space Center. We parked near the Shuttle mock-up, mated to its 747 transporter, and joined the queue of families waiting by the entrance.
My friend M.’s eyes fixated on a 1960s Lubitel camera. He haggled furiously and then left with the owner in search for an ATM to seal the deal. Large trays, filled with pins in the same way that mussels are arranged at Turnham Green’s fishmonger, eyed me from behind the crystals of the cabinets in which they were kept. They were arranged by thematic and, at prices ranging from 10 somoni – £1 – to 20, they were a steal. One very large tray, possibly the fattest amongst them, was labelled космос. Space.  
Alone in the shop I started browsing the pins. Apollo-Soyuz, Vostok, the small, graphite-grey commemorative lapels for fallen cosmonauts; it was a veritable space Mecca. I left laden with presents, but with only one pin for me. Rhomboid in its shape, it featured an enamelled square of space and, bang in the middle, a delightfully retro spaceship, obviously emblazoned with a red hammer & sickle. Beneath, the Cyrillic writing said 1975 – BEHEPA – 10. Even after weeks in the region I couldn’t decipher it. 
The JSC visitors’ centre was a gift that kept on giving. Apollo 10’s command module. Apollo 17’s. Pete Conrad’s lunar suit, still soiled by the lunar sands. The Moon buggy. Gemini 5 and Gordo Cooper’s Faith 7. We bundled on a small multi-wagon bus, pompously called tram, trundling towards what looked a rural community college campus a little bit worse for wear. It turned out to be where everything, from the glory days of Apollo to the future lunar and Mars missions, was and is managed. Sitting on the plastic benches of the whirring vehicle, it felt bewildering that these 1960s buildings with bike racks outside their entrances, sitting one stone’s throw away from a gated community, a Bullritos restaurant and a Better Home and Gardens estate agency, could be it, but there was no way that this was a dull Surrey business park. Not when parking spots were reserved for people whose title were Chief Astronaut or Orion Program Manager.

… To be continued.
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“Out of Steppe” by Daniel Metcalfe, Arrow – Random House

If the passion for travelling off the beaten path, exploring places that don’t make it on the top-shelf brochure at your local Trailfinders (but, let’s face it, they don’t even make it to the bottom one), was a genetic strand then I’d say that it almost completely disappeared from the British genome.
Fortunately for us it’s just ‘almost’; this is because Colin Thubron is thankfully still active, and also because of Daniel Metcalfe. All I have from him is a pretty agile book of 274 pages with bibliography (thumbs up) and hand-drawn maps (double thumbs-up) called Out of Steppe and many, many thanks for the incredibly nice person who found it in a Covent Garden bookshop that I didn’t even know existed and gifted it to me. 
Reading Daniel’s book – I unconsciously started calling him by his first name, I hope he’ll allow me the confidence – I thought I’d found a worthy successor of Wilfred Thesiger; if not for the prose, for the approach to travelling. Daniel’s book is about his gallivants through the five ‘Stans of the erstwhile Soviet Union, with Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan thrown in for good measure, but more importantly it’s about their peoples, or the most obscure communities amongst them. In order to tell the story of these groups he, and this is what I find very Thesiger-ish in him, becomes an erudite. He speaks the language, knows the history, has in a nutshell done his homework.
Don’t think for a second that this is an academic book, or some bearded professor rumbling on for ages in academic English understandable only to him and the other 35 readers of his university’s gazette, because it is first and foremost a travel book. It’s lively, accessible, not dogmatic, vivid and in parts outright funny. Daniel has a great wealth of knowledge and speaks some pretty exotic languages, but doesn’t let either gifts draw the narration down. You’ll struggle to find any self-centred rambling or glorification; this is not a book about him doing cool stuff, is a recollection of what he saw and did.
But what did he see, and what did he do? I realise it’s paragraph 5 and I haven’t said it yet. Well, Daniel started off in Iran, after months studying in Tehran (and that as a Brit takes some guts, considering how everyone I spoke to before my trip there suggested I get a bulletproof vest), crossed into Turkmenistan and then visited the forgotten province of Karakalpakstan, the corner of western Uzbekistan which once functioned as the south shore of the Aral Sea. The comparison between Moynaq, where he’d been, and Aralsk, where I stayed, made the north Kazakh shore an Eden of plenty, and made me realise that if I thought that what I’d seen there – the dust, the emptied port, the town of Aqespe being devoured by the sands – was bad, it’s a lot worse down in Uzbekistan.
A little further to the East is his next stop, Bukhara and its rapidly dwindling Jewish community. This is perhaps the most poignant, intense part of the book. I won’t do any spoilers, but the cemetery scene caused me to miss my Tube stop. Following north he succeeded where I failed, i.e. tracing the Germans of Kazakhstan. He lifts the lid on the cataclysmic proportions of the forced relocations ordered by the mass murderer that never got a Nuremberg, Stalin, poking around in the industrial city of Karaganda for Lutherans who moved into Russia at the time of tsarina Catherine.
It is, then, a crescendo of exoticness. In Tajikistan he treks to see the Yaghnobis, the last speakers of a language that Alexander the Great must’ve heard whilst he steamrolled towards the Ganges; he crosses into Afghanistan to visit the Hazara of Bamyan, a chapter that made me understand how Islamists – in the extremist sense of the term – aren’t just a hateful bunch, but are also racists. Finally, as if what he’d done so far was enough, he travels from Kabul to Peshawar, on routes that Westerners normally visit whilst wearing helmets and vests, garnished with weapons and armoured vehicles. All he has, instead, are local shared taxis, something I don’t think I’d ever have the huevos to do.
His last chapter is dedicated to one of the lesser known ethnic groups in Asia, the Kalasha. Pagans in a deeply Muslim country, where a government official slurring a religious oath was enough to cause mobs with pitchforks and torches to descend onto the streets, they definitely don’t have an easy life. Reading this chapter made me appreciate the beauty of plurality and how idiotic it is to proselytise in the name of some supposed cultural superiority. The forced conversions of the Kalashas, the banning of Polynesian dances, the forced collectivisation of Kazakh nomads; how many more crimes against culture will we need to see?
All in all, Out of Steppe is a great book and one I wish I’d written, if only because it’d have meant that I’d lived those stories. If I had to find one issue with my copy that’s one the praises, unfortunately written on the front cover, from The Economist, where Daniel is likened to Robert Byron. Having had to suffer through The Road to Oxiana when I took it with me in Iran without much else to read, I think that the only things in common between Daniel and that serial moaner of a toff called Byron is their membership to the human specie and, I guess, the ownership of a British passport.
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