North-Western revelations.

Prior to flying there I knew very little about Seattle. Rain and Kurt Cobain, Foo Fighters and Starbucks, Amazon and serial killers. Squashed between a Pacific coastline that looked too tormented to be understandable and the linear dichotomy of the Canadian border, Seattle has never been a place I’d spent much time thinking about.
The plane floated above a mountainscape of such density that it felt as if peaks had mushroomed without bothering to arrange themselves in cordilleras or valleys. Fjords worthy of Norway’s Sogn pushed inland like silvery tongues of water; forests rushed to meet them, pines standing on the very shoreline like penguins on an ice floe. When it came to it, the urban texture of the city popped out almost unannounced; first a grid of suburbs, rows of homes sitting in large gardens, then a palisade of skyscrapers that descended towards a shoreline and a busy, industrial port. I didn’t know Seattle had either.
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I harbour a deep sympathy for cities built by the sea, where the port isn’t out of sight and mind and commuters can take a ferry to work: Seattle had all three, the latter taking the form of beautifully démodé white boats that cruised majestically between the city and an archipelago of forested islands lurking in the mist. America, I was discovering, had its own Ha Long bay, only replete with places where to find bacon and fresh fish.
On the topic of bacon, breakfast at Lowell’s. Seven AM is the golden hour in this much-respected establishment, three floors of dark wood and well-used furniture rising above the city’s market. The place drips Americana: Eagles schmoozing on the stereo and punters wearing the combo of Patagonia jackets, Carhartt hoodies and Seahawk hats that are de rigueur amongst the city’s early risers, but more on them later. For now, breakfast. Fried oysters surf on a tectonic plate of scrambled eggs, shaving of cheese, bacon and rye bread. Beneath it, the solid crust of a monumental hash brown that has very little to share with the triangular sadness of those in Britain. Coffee is served with miraculous instantaneity. Whoever said Americans don’t have good food is a twat.
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There’s a decidedly industrial aspect to this town. Barges are pushed by tugs around the fjord. A floating derrick is busy doing something obscure by the seaside promenade. Ocean-going freighters are tended to by enormous cranes in a frenzied choreography of moving containers. Behind them a cement factory spews vapour in the drizzle.
This city looks big-boned, barrel-chested. The streets are pounded, at this time of the day, by workers wearing baggy Dickies overalls, wide-brimmed hard hats plastered in stickers, red hi-vis jackets with Motorola radio sets clipped in. Every other vehicle is a Ford F-150 laden with tools or clapped-out GCM Savanas.
On the topics of white, non-descript vans, as we walk under the rain through a quiet suburb north of the city centre it’s hard not to talk about serial killers. Gary Ridgeway and Ted Bundy: were it not for these lands true crime podcasts would have to make do with Bernie Madoff and art theft (which wouldn’t be a bad thing, let me be clear). We walk up to a junction, empty but for us, a bundle of blankets left behind by a vagrant and two crows quarrelling over something very much dead outside of Yummy Teriyaki. The sky is battleship grey and it’s drizzling. I can all but see Gillian Anderson approaching a murder scene wearing her characteristic frown. Above us the flank of the hill is covered by florid-looking houses with lush pine trees and panoramic windows facing downtown; no one is in sight, though. Probably they’re all downstairs, cooking body parts in large cauldrons like many gigantic bouillabaisses.
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A sign proclaiming a smoke-free zone has been nailed to a railing in the Kerry Park belvedere. An unseen hand has slapped on an Eintracht Frankfurt ultras sticker whilst another has crossed out the word ‘free’ and added another adhesive reading “Boring”.
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There’s a vibrant art scene in town and stickers are but a minor expression of it. As we walk, I begin noticing those attached to the buttons you use to call for a traffic light to turn white and allow pedestrians to cross. A penguin holds a bottle of booze and says he’s sorry. A very young Matthew Broderick says that it must be 11:11 somewhere. A cryptic note  asks for crème brûlée.
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A city with a fully-functioning monorail sporting sci-fi looks straight out of a Ray Bradbury book can’t avoid being edgy. Resting on a bedrock of hippy traditions, fertilised by high-quality and legal weed, Seattle’s alternative scene flourishes in ways that those whiny posers over in Shoreditch will never be able to copy. Perhaps it’s the vicinity to the great outdoors and the invigorating activities – biking, hiking, skiing – that they allow, but Seattle’s hipsters appear happier, less conformist, more active and less geeky than their East London cousins. And they achieve all that whilst sporting facial hair that reach levels of flamboyance never seen outside a Village People video, or a firefighters’ charity calendar.
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Perhaps it’s because of the weather, or maybe it’s the fact that we aren’t camping outside every wework in town, but my expectation of finding Seattle swamped with socially-inept software engineers appears to be a tad overblown. Granted, we spot a few of them walking around, blue badge flying in the wind like a royal standard. Moreover, signs of their presence are visible everywhere: Uber bikes, Tesla Model 3s, a serving of glass profiteroles plonked on a downtown block (courtesy of Amazon) and what looks like lots of painfully awkward office dinners in as many Japanese restaurants. Less amusing are the effects on the housing market of the arrival of so many well-paid geeks, with rents rising like inflation in Argentina and a large, even by US standards, community of homeless. Still, you won’t find me joining the anti-tech boys picket lines anytime soon. Unlike bankers, they’re largely making productive contributions to society, have never triggered a global recession, have never been bailed by the taxpayer and will never wear a pink tie.
Sun sets behind an overcast sky and, with it, ends our time in Seattle. We trudge back to the airport and its Alaska Airlines hangars emblazoned with a hooded Inuit who bears an uncanny resemblance to a smirking Silvio Berlusconi, triggering innumerable conspiracy theories. Whatever the truth, one thing is for sure: we shall be back.
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“Shark Drunk” by Morten Strøksnes, Vintage.

Norwegians are an inscrutable bunch. I’ve got colleagues from up there and, let me tell you, they are a constant source of wonder. Amongst many things, they’ll think nothing of saying things such as “Because you haven’t asked for this thing, you’re not gonna get it” to a customer who has paid millions for our services, or “Stop being so English” if I ever dare uttering nonsense such as “I see your point” or “I appreciate your point of view” within their earshot. They’re the kind of guys who will call a treacherous shoal Skitenflesa (shit rock) or a village Å because, well, why the hell not.
Brutally honest, deadpan as a 1960s Bond villain and seriously funny, the Norwegians have given the world many things – think salted liquorice shaped like little fish, badass polar explorers and folks who would share a sleeping bag for two years before deciding to get on first-name terms – and a book called Shark Drunk (subtitle: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean) by the awesomely-named Morten Strøksnes.
Shark Drunk – original name Havbuka, Ocean Book according to Google Translate – wouldn’t have worked at all had it been written by anyone other than a Norse. No one but the son (or daughter, it’s 2020 so let’s not be sexists, shall we?) of that beautiful country could’ve kicked it all off with these immortal lines: “Three and a half billion years. That’s the time it took from the moment the first primitive life-forms developed in the sea until Hugo Aasjord phoned me one Saturday night in July”. Read it in the soft accent of a Norwegian, with their quiet seriousness and those A’s that sound like O’s, and tell me if this isn’t a hell of a hook. Pun intended.
Throughout the book I kept on hearing echoes of Hemingway, and not because his spirit is haunting my flat. There’s a lot of The Old Man and the Sea in here, for Shark Drunk is the story of two men and their quest to land an elusive fish, though this isn’t the Caribbean and the prized prey isn’t a marlin. Instead it’s a fjord in the Lofoten archipelago and the fish is a big, mysterious piece of business called Greenland shark: five meters long, blind, capable of living for centuries, with skin that is exported as sandpaper and meat so toxic that can temporarily paralyze dogs and give men a bender to remember. Even the narrative style reminds me of Hemingway: big, broad brush strokes painting pictures that are vivid but at the same time manage to leave a lot to the imagination, a matter-of-factness where every word seems to be chosen very carefully. This is a book written by people who don’t speak a lot but, when they do, carry a lot of meaning.
I opened Shark Drunk expecting a story on men versus nature, on fishing in the open ocean out of a small boat, and I got all that. But there’s so much more, a lot more. There’s history, there’s science, there’s the story of Hugo and Mette and their quest to put the crumbling Aasjord station back onto the centre-stage of life in Skrova island. There’s the deep-rooted love for a place, the Vestfjord, its people and its culture and some exquisitely quirky forays into the depths of the Norwegian language (who would have ever guessed that the local dialect has 30 words to define winds blowing from the west, or that sjybårturn defines the sound of water lapping against the shore on a warm summer night?). And, there and again, there are pearls of these guys’ trademark Nordic honesty, such as “A man on a mall windswept island off Vestlandet also proved that Forbes was full of shit”. Because you know he was.
What is this book, then? A kaleidoscope. At its core, it’s a quest; the refreshingly démodé act of hunting an animal, of casting a line instead of heading off to the fish aisle at Lidl. But it’s also an adventure book, a travel story, a history treatise, a science publication. It’s serious, it’s deadpan, it’s humorous, it’s thoughtful and often even poetic. It’s soon to be saying this, but I firmly believe that Shark Drunk has all the markings of a modern-day classic.
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EOY Reviews, NY objectives.

If you’re employed in a company you’ll be familiar with this period of the year: ’tis is the season when CEOs are wheeled out of their offices to recite a speech outlining everything that you minions have delivered and to declare the bar open, beating everyone to the champers. The inevitable will then follow: the year’s results will be out, stock price will plunge as the City analysts expected more revenue, less costs or both, to which management will react with a collective squeezing of gonads of unprecedented intensity.
The same, broadly speaking, is going on here at the lofty heights of Are We There Yet? Incorporated (NYSE: AWTY), where the mood is euphoric as I toast in the conference room that doubles as our kitchen with a glass of crisp water kindly sourced by Thames Water from some west London reservoir (flat, with a hint of limescale). It’s been a heck of a year, with experiences and memories – the only metrics to measure success over here – firmly on the up and no gonadic squashing scheduled for anyone.
2019 brought epic drives: from snowy Icelandic passes on a great little Suzuki SUV with spiked wheels to runs on Chilean dirt roads on a 4WD pick-up that could’ve featured in the Toyota War had it not been a Nissan. As a passenger I hitched rides with Chinese border patrolmen and Kyrgyz lorry drivers with a thing for Rubik cubes.
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It’s also been a year of marking big ticks on that long scroll titled “Things to do before you kick the bucket”: namely seeing orcas – and being two of the few not to vomit our guts out in the process – and admiring the majestic Milky Way stretch from horizon to horizon in possibly the most poignant place I’d ever had the privilege to see, Rapa Nui. The island inspired phrases such as “the square root of diddly squat”, for which I’m still receiving death threats from poets and writers worldwide.
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This has also been the year of Xinjiang, of seeing with my own eyes hints of something truly, deeply, disturbingly awful going on: the dismantling of a culture.

So, this has been 2019 in a nutshell: exhilarating, interesting, unique, frustrating and also worrying. A year where I’d have changed nothing – but maybe a restaurant in Oxford Circus but that’s another story. What about next year, then?
In keeping with the corporate theme with which we started this post, here is a forward look to next year. Plans are, as it’s always the case with me, subject to uncertainty: much like the particles described by Heisenberg, I can either know my plan’s location or momentum, not both. However, this is what has been firmed up, until it suddenly isn’t:
A return to the Holy Land. Possibly the only place where using a locution straight out of Catechism can be the safest option. Ecumenically, this will be a visit to both side of the literal barricade: first a bunk bed at Banksy’s Walled Off hotel, then a slightly swankier accommodation in the only city in the area where people aren’t firmly convinced of being on first-name terms with the Almighty: Tel Aviv.
The Jurassic Park and Lost islands. Plans here are on the flimsy side, but it seems that there’s a chain of islands where, allegedly, dinosaurs roamed, planes broke up mid-air thanks to a guy named Jacob who had a brother with a bad temper and a habit of turning into black smoke. The chain of islands is called Hawaii and there’s a general intention of going there, possibly to trek, watch whales and maybe a spot of stargazing or two.
The land of High Passes. As close as it gets to Tibet without seeing Xi doing yet more malfeasance, Ladakh is a new discovery to me. Prompted by an otherwise wholly forgettable book by James Hilton on Shangri-La, this will be a dip in the high-altitude pool that is this corner of Himalayan desert where the ascetic Buddhism coming from the Tibetan plateau comes to mingle with the religions coming from the lower, steamier flatlands of the subcontinent.
This is as far as the planning has gone right now. Some plans will go through, some won’t, but the intention is there. In the meantime, thanks to all of you who have decided to invest some of your time in reading my ramblings. Pour yourself a large one of whatever you fancy and have a toast. To a 2020 where experiences and memories are on the up for everyone.
This was the view from our balcony on New Year’s Eve, 2017. We still live in the same place, with the same balcony, with the same view. But alas no photos this year: the tree outside the house has caught up with us!
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無月

After ten years of repeating that Budapest had potential I arrived in town for a solo night – my first – to discover that, yes, the old gal has done it. Realising it, I mean. And ain’t that a surprise.

My hotel is also a restaurant, or maybe is a restaurant that sprouted a hotel as an afterthought. Who knows. I sit bewildered in a vast hall that is oozing démodé charm. Creaking wooden floors, un-matching chairs and tables, a couple of very well used cupboards. Nude lightbulbs with orange filaments dangle from the ceiling. Whiteboards scribbled in Hungarian enunciate the dishes of the day. A menu arrives and is typed on yellowish paper with a proper typing machine. Memories flood back about my mother’s red Olivetti and its vinyl case.
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Recollections of Erzsébetváros aren’t so remote but feel ancient nonetheless. I pound the streets of the VII, once my favourite district, and struggle to recognise it at all. A mere seven years ago, to travel to Budapest was to hop on the TARDIS back to the 1990s. Not anymore.
Gone are the nude brick façades that opened with muted stupor on gravel squares where a tenement has given way, seemingly overnight, to an illegal parking lot. The lots are still there, though less and less, but those unsightly palisades of old bricks covered in strata of soot are gone, painted over by bright murals. Ernő Rubik’s cube. That time when Hungary did 6 goals to England. A map of Budapest. A cubist portrait of a moustached fella that looked an awful lot like Kafka.
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French and Russian and Spanish are the languages that echo the most in the grid of streets where, once, you’d mostly bump into sleazy, unctuous Italian sex tourists. Speaking of my compadres, they too have changed. There’s a group of six men in the restaurant, extremely well dressed and indulging in a coffee at the end of a hearty meal. The discussion is lively and centred on how to merge the Italian equivalents for hen night and stag do, for both husbands-to-be are taking part to this weekend’s celebrations.
The Hungarians, too, have changed. Gone are the woolly sweaters, the leather jackets, the Farrah Fawcett-style perms for lassies and mullets for men. Gone, too, are the Opel Mantas, the Merc 190s and the boxy Suzukis. Today’s Magyars have borrowed the Moncler puffer jackets from the Italians (a crime for which, sooner or later, we’ll have to answer) and inch forward in bumper-to-bumper traffic at the wheel of Volvo hatchbacks or Nissan Qashqais.
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What remains, then, of the Budapest I’ve grown to know in a handful of visits some 10 years ago? The trams remain the same, though even those are getting shinier and shinier. The attitude of most waiters, ticket sellers, queue-minders and bartenders is as refreshingly dour as it ever was. Think of an off-duty secret police interrogator who has just realised that you’ve run over his pet hamster.
Light fades and I receive the rather unwelcome news that my old favourite restaurant has priced me out. The phalanx of black Mercedes G 63 AMGs, all Russian-plated, parked outside is enough of a giveaway. Uncertain on what to do I head towards Nyugati and, from there, on Margit híd. Both banks glisten in the glow of dozens of sodium lights. I look on at the monuments – Parliament, Buda’s castle, the Citadella – as they gleam like Tolkenian treasures in the night.

Suddenly I find myself thinking at those first visits, at that flight when, barely in the air and already homesick, for home is where your heart is, the clouds parted to reveal exactly this view; how envious I felt at those who were down there, at those unknown people who could commute home on tram 6 rather than having to catch a plane!
The Budapest I remember has gone, changed beyond recognition by money and progress and investment and those Lime electric scooters, may Zeus incinerate the sod who invented them. But it doesn’t matter.
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In for a penny in for a pound, I thought. If I really wanted to walk down memory lane, to reminisce about the Budapest of Bacsó Béla utca, the one where trams still stopped at Moszkva tér, the city I was so eager to go to and so reluctant to leave, I might as well do it properly and have some music. I fished out my phone and found 無月, that trip-hop masterpiece that is DJ Krush’s Mu Getsu, a song that I’d been listening to so much back then. I walked on, aiming generally towards my hotel, head bobbing along with the drum’s tempo and Toshinori Kondo’s hypnotic trumpet. In that moment of silence halfway down the song I heard a tram passing by.

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Every day is Legs Day if you’re in Lisbon.

“Every day is Legs Day if you’re a dog” once said a philosophy-inclined former colleague of mine. For those of you not familiar with gym logic, he was referring to the fact that dogs, for obvious reasons, cannot skip training their legs, unlike those ridiculous guys who you sometimes see around, arms the sizes of trees and thighs as big as breadsticks.
This pearl of wisdom resurfaced back to me as I was scurrying up the hill path that ultimately led to the top of Miradouro da Senhora do Monte. Unlike London, flat as a pancake, Lisbon waves and snakes its way above an endless theory of hills that roll in the vast estuary of the river Tagus. Every neighbourhood as a hill – sometimes two – each with its viewpoint or miradouro. Unconsciously I embarked on a quest to climb as many as I could find.
Intendente was my starting point. I slept in a hostel room abutting a piazzetta, called largo, where at night young university students descended to drink and chat until four AM. Mornings, as it often happens in places like this, were decidedly drearier: the breakfast area of the hostel was dominated by the ramblings of a very loud and not very coherent Afrikaner lady and, outside, a gaggle of addicts were waking up to find out that one of the side effects of the drugs wearing off was extreme irritability.
Yet the area had its charms: old, decaying buildings expressed the glory of bygone times; others, frontier of gentrification, were being converted in places like the one I stayed in or the much fancier hotel just down the road. And as you progressed downhill, an ecosystem of Chinese supermarkets, Indian kebab shops and the headquarters of a Left-wing party, a banner lamenting the anniversary of somebody’s death: 30 anos sem José Carvalho.
I pressed on, veering left and uphill at the junction immediately after the entrance of the Nova Goa hotel, a dour man chain-smoking on the doorstep. The best fado album cover song I could think of.
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The road to Alfama shed saudade with every meter it gained in altitude, the music ringing in my ears becoming more bossa nova than words redolent of long-lost love. The weather too was clearing out and little trams began puttering up and down the streets in a happy cacophony. Belvederes placed in strategic places offered commanding views over churches, bell towers, roofs and water.
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Another ramp, so steep that those hateful electric rental scooters failed when tackling it, led to the Graça convent and another miradouro. From here Lisbon appeared to be designed to confuse: there was a statue of Christ that said “pretty much this big” with his arms like the one in Rio; next, a red suspension bridge crossed the estuary, looking the photocopy of that Golden Gate I’d just seen being destroyed by a cargo ship in The Rock’s latest disaster film. Puzzling.
The logical next step was the miradouro dedicated to our Lady of the mountain where, in the company of two jogging firefighters, I had my epiphany. Much like dogs, I reflected whilst stretching my thighs, every day’s Leg Day if you’re in Lisbon. I wonder if the council will put up a plaque to commemorate the event.
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Thinking done it’s a case of once more unto the breach, my friends, once more. Let’s dive once more into the alleyways that tumble down from the castle into the waterfront; let’s sink again in the riot of colours, azulejos and alfacinhas that go about their business. Let’s do it.
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The weather is changing. I emerge from a small tasca, a tiny restaurant with white tiles like an abattoir, to find that the sun has been replaced by dark, ominous clouds of the kind that have been hovering above London for the past three months. The right weather, I suppose, to be entering a neighbourhood dubbed Misericordia.
Misericordia could also be the plea of the poor sod who has to walk these streets from east to west (I went for something a bit stronger, but I’ve never been a good Catholic). A precious few roads run in steady ascent whilst the overwhelming majority are a knee-breaking and lung-bursting up-and-down obstacle course of stairs, cobblestones and turns. The neighbourhood has grown into a landscape of small, steep valleys that run parallel to one another and to walk across them is to climb above a ridge, descend into the precipice and then climb again. A via crucis shaded by citrus trees.
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There must be a mirodouro and for my sins I got one. Dedicated to Santa Caterina, patron saint of Italy and nurses (and double patron of Italian nurses I guess), the belvedere opens up next to a pharmacology museum-cum-bar doing a brisk trade in G&Ts. For medical reasons I assume.
The balcony arcs above the estuary, on the avalanche of houses, terraces and photovoltaic panels that descend towards a waterfront of new buildings, warehouses and, on the far right, the port. Cranes stand to attention next to mounds of containers but there are only two vessels moored there and one, it seems, isn’t going to go anywhere soon. A ferry of sorts with a roll-on, roll-off ramp up front, is slumped against the pier at a 30 degrees angle, its charred and rusty underbelly exposed.
I squint in the now gloomy light to get a better look, possessed by the same curiosity that causes us to slow down at a traffic accident, but in that precise moment a curtain falls. First to go is about-this-big-Jesus, then the Golden Gate, then the port itself. The world closes in under the drizzle and all that remains for me to do is to walk down a steep, slippery slope.
Yes. Everyday’s Leg Day if you’re in Lisbon.
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Swindlers’ Market.

On a square dedicated to the saint patron of needleworkers and television, behind the convent sanctifying the memory of the protector of orphans and widows, Lisbon’s lady thieves are having their weekly gathering. Make of that what you wish.
For being a convivium of malfeasants the Feira da Ladra is a pretty out-in-the-open kind of event. In facts, unlike other such markets where there’s a real possibility of finding the pieces that once made up your bike or moped, this one feels quite legitimate. More flea market than ‘let’s-sell-whatever-we-nicked-from-that-guy’s-garage’.
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There’s a preponderance of minor antiques, books and clothes sold at bargain prices. The crowd is decidedly local. The only concession to style is a ghetto of sorts for artists, protected by a burly security guard in case anyone wants to liberate wooden bow-ties or other trinkets. Few bother venturing in, preferring to stay under the trees to scan the books, the flotsam of domestic possessions that have stopped being used some 50 years ago and the omnipresent trays of old coins.
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What’s worth of mention and praise, though, is the presence of a modest tavern, aptly named La Tabernita. A humble place with long tables stretching into the piazza under an awning, chequered paper tablecloths and menu written on a laminated piece of paper stapled to the wall. The place where the soup of the day is always served with a large chunk of bread, where a jug of the house’s white wine is readily available at 11AM and the view on the ‘thieves’ is almost completely unimpeded.
And that, as they say, is that.
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À la recherche du bar perdu.

There was a bar, once.
A weekend away with friends. An April escapade with mates from high school, an occasion to appreciate how much we’ve grown – cancel that, how much we’ve aged in the last years. There were calls to girlfriends, wives, pregnant wives and nagging work emails. But nothing and no one disturbed us at that undefined hour when dinner is a hazy recollection, the beers tally has reached double figures and, on our way to a club… we stopped at a bar.
Oh, I just realised I haven’t actually said where that bar was. How bad of me. Lisbon. We were in Lisbon.
In my defence I have to say that memories of that night are, shall we say, blurred. What day of the weekend it was, I wouldn’t be able to say. Why we stopped there, neither. What I do remember is that it wasn’t much of a bar: people spilled out on the cobbled street. I remember that there were parking spots on the opposite side of the road and that a young man succeeded in squeezing his large car into an impossibly tiny space. Punters cheered him and he took a bow.

We stopped there for another beer to nurse in the queue that, almost without saying, we were diving headfirst into. By that time the Super Bock’s taste – a bit too flat and sweet for my buds – had grown acceptable. Repetition is the trick, compadres. Two of us got the orders and we entered.
The place was larger than a cleaner’s sluice but not by much. And it was packed.
Men and women sat at the bar, or perhaps they stood there. Who can tell. Others milled around, sardined in the smallest of spaces. A few bottles of indescribable alcohol stood on the shelves between the drinkers and the bars, the pumps for Sagres and Super Bock – only them, always them, tertium non datur – standing as defences. Behind them was a hurried woman, busy filling the flimsy plastic pint cups. Above her an old TV transmitted the footie, but no one cared. Vaulted roof, beige; the bar, fake wood; add a tiled floor that no one could see for there were too many legs in the way. Beers were filled and passed on in a human chain. There was a window, protected by some iron bars: sometimes, answering some shouted indications, beers moved in that direction and flowed out the window, into the street. For reasons that will become evident later, I can’t tell you if there was any music. We screamed our orders, passed the money on, intercepted our beers as they crowdsurfed forward and got out.
I liked the place, I liked the street. The clientele was different from the Bairro Alto watering holes we’d pilgrimaged through earlier. The cloud of hashish that hung above the street certainly helped but what sealed the deal was the music.
Smack-bang at the centre of the crowd were a small posse of those kind of guys that, normally, you’d see hanging around train stations. Dreadlocks, baggy trousers, faded clothes. These guys and girls also had drumsticks and upturned plastic buckets. The rhythm, the music, the voices were undeniably, unmistakably Brazilian. I dare you, standing there in the smoke haze, hearing the syncopated rhythm of a samba, watching the crowd dance, not to feel as if you’d just been transported to Rio, to Bahia, on a wet tropical night around Carnival, where bars serve cold beer poured from a garden hose. I felt the urge of getting a caipirinha and a good moqueca de peixe. 
I returned to Lisbon alone, to get to see the city in a slightly less inebriated state of mind. As it always happens when I try to find something again, I had only a foggy idea of where to go.

It was reasonably late, pushing 1AM. Late enough for the locals to have left the restaurants and be hitting the bars. I’d been sharing gossip with an old colleague outside a bar in Largo do Intendente, a place where you could pay two bottles of Sagres with 3 euros and still receive a dollop of coins as change. Our reminiscing done I set off, walking downhill past Praça Dom Duarte, the hulking figure of Hotel Mundial presiding over a nightscape of waiting taxis, sleeping vagrants and other shadier, shiftier figures. Bass music buzzed from a club perched atop the hill.
A series of straight roads, with junctions placed at right angles, opened next. I knew where I was going and, before long, I’d walked past Praça Do Comercio and into the neighbourhood. The hunt was on.
Everything was as I remembered it: packed with people, clouded by the occasional tidal wave of weed smoke, plastic tumblers rolling from sidewalk to sidewalk, the bars heaving with revellers. You only had to make eye contact with someone, anyone, to be offered coke or smack. I pushed on. 
The church was where I remembered it, at the end of the dark square of a park. The bar had to be on the left and, indeed, there was the street. The potholed tarmac, the cars, the upmarket restaurant, chairs stacked and floors swept after an evening of fine dining. Everything was there.
But for the bar.
The street, alone in the neighbourhood, lied empty. There was no bar, no beers flowing out of the window and definitely no Brazilian dancers. Only closed doors, padlocked grilles. And no music but the sound of an idling car. 
I walked the grid back and forth once, twice, three times. I worked methodically, starting at the Ascensor da Bica and pounding each alley, each road between there and the statue of the Duke of Terceira. By the second time the pushers had learned not to offer me drugs: wasted breath.
Yet the bar wasn’t there. The bar wasn’t anywhere.
I grabbed a beer from a stall and walked back. The bar was indeed perdu but I wasn’t feeling bad about it. Somehow its ephemerality added to the charm and character of an evening to remember. Later the following day I’d speak with some of the participants of that weekend, and it emerged that they could barely recollect the place. Perhaps it’d all just been a dream.

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I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me to see me looking back at you.

Grounded. I guess you can say this is my status at the moment.
A new job with no duty travel means not many occasions to fly the nest. All there is left to do, then, is to polish up your pitch to see if any literary agent is stupid forward-thinking enough to represent that travel book you’ve been writing for a while and, of course, going to work.
My new place of employment has some interesting qualities. One of those – rather unexpectedly – is its location. You see, I always worked in those charmless industrial wastelands that always see to clung around major airports, littering their surroundings in an unkempt clot of hangars, warehouses, half-arsed business parks. The sort of place where restaurants are few, mostly located in hotels and where runway views are considered a notesworthy plus. Not now, though. My new job’s in East London, in that part of the city where Vietnamese pho is ubiquitous. And delicious.
Every day I commute to what the Evening Standard defines, much to my chagrin, “Silicon Roundabout”. Apparently you can throw an avocado, there, and hit a software developer; yet it’s a nickname denoting a degree of provincialism unworthy of a self-respecting city like London.
I used to scoff at the idea of East London. I poured scorn at the lattes, the vegan doughnuts, the squats and the hordes of fixies. Despite my penchant for checquered shirts – I’m my father’s son after all – you will never see me donning a flannel (unless I pick up a job in forestry in Kelowna, BC). And I’m the first to say that having vomit flowing like iceberg on the Grand Union canal and sidewalks so sticky that even rats can’t scurry around isn’t “edgy”: it’s asking for cholera.
Yet, I can’t avoid admitting that I’m liking East London. I like my morning walk from Hoxton to the Silicon Old Street roundabout enormously, regardless of the weather. It might be just a couple of city blocks as I hurry to work, ready to start whichever meeting is on the agenda for the day, fishing my blue badge (cue in The God Themselves as suggested by Uncle Tony, may he rest in peace), but it’s always a refreshing experience.
Click or tap on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
The ladies in niqab on their Wacky Races school run, piloting those Toyota Estimas like they stole them. The cyclist brigade, barrelling down Pitfield street like the Grand Boucle. The geeks, the off duty drag queens, the Cockney window cleaners and the brickies from Wroclaw, the chaps in gym gear and the fashionistas pushing the envelope way beyond my limited understanding. They’re all there, different every day.
Click or tap on any of the photos to start the slideshow.
I suppose the reason for my sudden appreciation for this corner of East London lies in the fact that it’s unlike anywhere else in town. No Sweaty Betty, no Foxton’s real estate agents, no Pret-a-Manger, no McDonald’s. I guess the reason why I like it so much is because this corner of East London isn’t afraid of being itself. Multi-faceted, chaotic, unkempt, perhaps even grubby and a tad preposterous. But this is the way its people want it to be, and I’m really glad to be able to dip my toe in it on a daily basis. Allow me to show you around: click on the photos and start the slideshow. Check out those guys looking back at me to see me looking back at (them). I’m sure you know the song.
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Travels in Italy’s 11th most-visited region.

There are twenty regions in Italy (or perhaps it’s only 19; Molise’s existence, much like dark matter, is still a matter for debate); together in 2018 they hosted a whopping 429 million tourists, half of them foreigners (of whom at least three haven’t been ripped off by a cab driver).
Say “Italy” and the mind will travel to the domes of the Eternal City, to the rolling hills of Tuscany or to the canals of Venice. Yet, this post is not about any of them. This post is about a region lying 11th in the rank of the most visited, with five time less tourists than Veneto. Even less than tiny Liguria.
Piedmont.
A paltry 15 million visitors graced Piedmont, the land sandwiched between the Alps and the Lombard land of plenty, of their presence; four million of those chose to stop only in Turin. And perhaps there’s a reason. Contrary to the Milanese, ever so skilled at boastful self-promotion, the Piedmontese are a byword for modesty, even shyness. Esageruma nen, “let’s not exaggerate”, is the regions’ leitmotiv. Us Piedmontese are way too self-aware of this, this or this to shout from the rooftops how beautiful this land is.

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Monforte d’Alba is your typical Piedmontese village. Old stone houses. Newer ones in red bricks and anodized aluminium window frames. A square with the local bar. A few roads sneaking along the ridgeline where the village has been built, evidently to guard against raids from the neighbouring potentate. Elderly villagers stopping to read the obituaries affixed to the city hall’s notice board. The Carabinieri doing patrols on a Subaru.
Yet there are subtle differences, hints to show this isn’t your usual, boring, Piedmontese farmland – maize, rice, cattle – bisected by train lines and motorways. Somebody, for starters, has drawn the silhouette of a rhino on a corner wall. Then there’s a quirky auditorium, modelled after a Greek amphitheatre. And the view.

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This is the Langhe. Eleven thousand hectares between the provinces of Asti and Cuneo, a band of hills in a region that’s otherwise extremely flat or extremely mountainous. Eleven thousand hectares almost entirely dedicated to the production of nuts – Ferrero, and Nutella, are from Alba after all – or wine. There are fourteen Denominations of Controlled Origin, DOC in the Italian version of the acronyms, and more than 300 DOC and DOCG-certified producers. Numbers worthy of Tuscany, of Chianti. Yet this isn’t a place where Sting has a mansion and where IT billionaires have plonked villas on every hilltop.
The Langhe, in spite of baronial estates such as Barolo and Montezemolo, still has a modest edge. Folks, here, might have a private wealth account at some posh bank but will still drop at the bar in their corduroys and Wellingtons. This is Beppe Fenoglio’s country, the gritty, realist writer of La Malora.

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People still live here, they haven’t moved out and sold everything to Dutch retirees. They live and die and bring new life in, like the twins that have graced the barmaid’s family, as she says when people notice the blue and pink ribbons on the door. Two men, one of whom sports a pair of moustaches worthy of King Vittorio Emanuele II, chat at a table that is strangely devoid of chalices of bianco. Further down the road a wedding is about to start, the bride being walked to the altar by her proud father.

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La Morra is a contradiction to everything I’ve just written. Perhaps it’s because of the majestic balcony that is both public square and view point over the hills, but the town is busy with visitors and modern art installations. Again another rhino, this time used as a bench and climbed by scores of kids, despite the misspelled sign that reads “Sitting only”. Cyclists drink a spritz in their Lycras emblazoned with the adverts of cement makers, postal services and cable TV companies, their expensive bikes parked in front of them. A man plays an ancient instrument, medieval in its looks and complexity, kids hurriedly pleading their moms for una moneta to throw in his hat. Centuries ago peasants must’ve danced to those Occitan tunes, here on the belvedere.

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Let’s cross the region, let’s drive northwards. Skip Turin, only a few years ago so magnificent and today stranded in a puddle of neglect by a mediocre city administration that is too inept even to be corrupt. Let’s venture further north, in the least visited corner of Piedmont. Let’s drive until the mountains rise up to block our way towards Vallée d’Aoste.
It’s Monday, early autumn. The valley floor is engulfed in mist and, alas, smog, courtesy of this part of Italy being nothing but a giant cul-de-sac. The mountains, instead, are clear, cool and empty. Gone are the majority of the wandering bands of cattle that have migrated up here in the summer; gone are the vacationers and the skyrunners. The villages too are empty as most of their inhabitants descend towards Biella and the flatland to start their week at school, in the office or factory. We’re basically alone up here.

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Yet that’s not the case. A band of horses is munching on the short grass on the ridge where we are standing. Two of them, a couple of extraordinary beauty, stand cinematographically on the edge between direct sunlight and shade, the stallion eyeing protectively his beautiful mare.

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Suddenly, the ground reverberates with the thumps of a galloping beast. It’s running downhill, from the peak of the col towards us, the sun shining behind it and into our eyes like a Messerschmitt fighter preying on a defenceless bomber. To fly or to flight, to run or to stay, these are the questions. Unconsciously we crab-walk sideways, away from the trajectory of the tumbling animal, hoping it won’t alter its course to hit us. Blindly, I press the shutter of the camera. Perhaps somebody will find our bodies flattened to a pizza, recover the SD card and the world will know that Sasquatch exists and lives in the Italian Prealps and not in Cascadia.

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The llama – because of course it is, what else could it be but an Andean camelid in the Alps? – gallops inches past us in a whirlwind of flapping ears, fur and fat tail waggling in its wake. I suppose that being almost run over by a roving llama is something that can only happen in Italy’s 11th most visited region.

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There were…

…a rhino, a wedding, a few horses and a running llama.
They all were here, in the same region.
It’ll all make sense. Hopefully.
Posted in Italy, Piemonte | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments