There’s a concept I sometimes hear from my software engineer chums: abstraction, or the process of removing all sorts of attributes – be them physical, spatial, temporal – to get to the root of something (usually a system, since we’re talking software), to the basic elements that what really interest them.
I’m not an engineer so I don’t know if abstraction requires a vehicle. In case it does, I’ve found mine. For a cheap fare, the swipe of a pre-paid magnetic card, I can forego all those attributes – bundable under a generic, non-numeric scatological term – that do not add value to my life and concentrate on what I really want to focus on in the here and now. The vehicle can come in two forms: it can be green, white and yellow when operated by Sehir Hattari or, if it’s a Turyol, white and blue. An Istanbul ferry. A vapur.
There’s something, in this city, that keeps on pulling me in. It might be the history, the fact of having a XIV century home built by the Genoans as your neighbour; it might be the people, in all their fascinating contradictions. All I know is that a key element to explain why, every now and then, I end up here is the feeling of taking a vapur.
Karaköy Pier has been renovated and is a rather modernist affair, now. I swipe and find myself, by accident rather than by design, on the Turyol end of the building. Eyup it is, then.
The trip up the Golden Horn is a refresh of a history I have never lived. An hourglass of çay by my side, a train of squeaking seagulls in our wake and a crow perched on top the canvas cover is all we need for the trip. The vapur parades past Fener, Balat, St Mary of the Mongols: places where the Greeks made their last stand in 1453 and where their imprinting is still visible, ever so faintly. We chug on and I wonder about what happened to those I’d met there last time.
Eyup arrives all of a sudden, almost announced. The hill of the graves is there, grim in the grey weather. We’re almost out of water, the Golden Horn has become land and homes and streets and a cable-car. Somebody, down below, yells something that I take to mean to get off.
I disembark with a posse of cougars voluptuously trailed by a cloud of perfume and decide that, no, I don’t want to stay in Eyup. I turn and run back into the pier, Turkish Sarah Jessica Parker watching in disbelief, and abscond in the warm embrace of the lower deck, admiring the spectacle of those commuting to Eminönü. The tea seller, seeing me again, asks if I’d found his mother-in-law waiting at the pier.
Sunday. My Istanbul layover has come to an end just as a lovely sun is warming up the Bosporus. A flight beckons at Atatürk but I still have time for another ride. Eminönü pier is just to the left of Galata bridge and, berthed, is one of those beautifully démodé Sehir ferries, those with the razor-sharp prow, rounded stern, wooden viewing decks and pictures of Atatürk hanging from the panelled bulkhead.
I board as my phone purrs into life and begins downloading emails, buzzing as it does. After a Friday travelling I opted for not opening the laptop and, instead, drank beers watching TV. This is payback. But as soon as the mooring lines are off, and this intercontinental journey of 10 minutes starts, it’s all forgotten.
Out there in the narrow channel there’s no office, work or pressing problems. It’s just the sun painting Sultanahmet gold, the bridges, the light mist hanging above the water and the cargo ships going about their business. Sat aft on this beautiful ferry I daydream about the feasibility of reconfiguring one of these marvels into a private yacht with which to hop around the Med – Beirut, Alexandria, Palermo, Naples, Oran, Marseille – and beyond, to Tangiers and the Caribbean, perhaps flying the flag of one of those countries that register the container ships moored at Haydarpaşa.
A voice in Turkish drags me out of my shipbuilding dreams. A young man, meticulously shaven and coiffured, is asking something. All he’s missing to pass for a Mormon is a plastic badge, but I doubt he’s putting up a spiel on Jesus. A second well-groomed guy is summoned as soon as it dawns on them that I might look Turkish but, in fact, I ain’t.
There’s five of them, all soldiers. Squaddies on a free day, wanting a photo taken. Here they are in Kadiköy harbour, happy and proud as they should be, with only 70 days to go before the end of conscription. Sixty-nine days and a wake-up, as they said in Platoon.
On the deck below a man runs a tespih in his hands as we float near Ayasofya. We dock and I take the tram back towards Yusufpaşa. It’s only when I’m in the bowels of Atatürk, sitting in front of a 0.75 l glass of Efes, that I realise that I haven’t thought about work at all since I boarded the vapur.
It’s 6AM in Istanbul, but we’re a couple of hours ahead and Istanbul, well, s’éveille aussi. The guards at Aksaray metro station won’t come out of the sentry box because it’s 6AM and even Daesh is having a lie-in today.
The simit sellers are already out supplying the Galata fishermen who’d been out there all night, catching God knows what.
The shops at the foot of Galata escarpment are already open, or perhaps not yet closed. Cats slip in and out, dancing around empty bottles of raki. It’s a Saturday morning.
The New Mosque is all wrapped up in plastic and scaffolding, but Suleymaniye gleams up top and Ayasofya is still looking as if she’d got everything figured out.
It’s six AM in Istanbul. The transvestites are going for a pass of the Bic, the strippers have got their parkas on again, bolsters are crushed, lovers are tired and I’ve found my hotel. Perhaps I can sweet talk the consierge into really relaxing that early check-in policy.
Unless you’ve taken up a flatshare with Bikini Bottom’s Patrick Star, you’ll have heard about CO2 trading. In the EU version of the thing, a cap is set on specific emissions, which is also constantly lowered year after year. If you find yourself above it, then you’ve got to buy credits – effectively supporting schemes to reduce emissions somewhere else.
However, you might be excused to think this could apply only to large corporations and not to the average Joe (I certainly didn’t); after all, how much greenhouse gases could realistically a person emit?
I always considered myself to be a fairly low-carbon human being, at least based on my average peer group made of wealthy Westerners. I don’t own a car, I commute by public transport or, as the Latins would say, pedibus calcantibus; my purchases of cheap cotton clothes are limited to the absolute necessary, which is to say that most of my T-shirts have witnessed at least two World Cups; and my consumption of red meat has steadily declined. Yes, there’s the flying but… come on, how much can that amount to?
Forty point something tons for 2018.
Forty point something tons, or 40.19 if you feel numerically inclined, is more or less equivalent to the weight of an average adult sperm whale. Or 7 African elephants. Or, if you’re struggling to figure them out, 350 LeBron Jameses.
To quote very freely from Led Zeppelin, that’s a lotta fartin’.
How did I get to that? Well, by entering the flights made last year in climatecare.org’s carbon calculator. Climatecare is an Oxford-based NGO that offers carbon offsetting services not just to large corporations but, as I found out, to the average Joe too. All that one needs to do is to plonk in the figures of one’s flying, including classes of travel, and voilà the cost is returned at a fee of £7.50 per ton, or $9.67.
My 40.19 tons have been the result of 42 flight and have costed me, to offset, £301 and change. For those of you who use dollars, that’s 388 pieces with George Washington printed on it, which Climatecare will invest in projects aimed at reducing the footprint of day-to-day activities in developing nations. What I’ve learnt is that the plushier the seat, the higher the emissions. For instance a London-Tashkent return flight in economy accounted for 1.4 tons of the bad stuff, whilst a London-JFK in Business – for a flight of similar duration – emitted 4.41 tons. First is even worse.
Most of these flights have been done for work; should I have paid to offset them? My answer, ultimately, is yes. It was my bum on those seats and, ultimately, I agreed to go there. Following orders didn’t work at Nuremberg and won’t cut it here too. And, at the end of the day, it’s a nice feeling, the one of being as carbon neutral as one possibly can.
There’s only a way to define my desire to describe a community of 13 million people after visiting it for a mere handful of days: preposterous.
Still, this is what I’ll attempt here. This is my final tribute to Buenos Aires, to this city sandwiched between the blue ocean and a sea of green grass. I might probably fail but, deep inside me, I feel compelled to make at least an attempt. I must.
There are, in this city, constant reminders of Rio de Janeiro. It’s not just the warmth of an off-season, at least for me, sun; it’s also the fresh fruit, the multi-faceted urban texture that blends colonial stunners and 1970s eyesores, Armenian churches and swanky condos and that sub-tropical decay that seems to hit only the public infrastructure. Yet, there’s a difference. Despite the criminality, economic uncertainty and the never-ending procession of crooked politicians, Cariocas struck me as being, generally, in a good mood. Maybe it’s the musicality of Brazilian Portuguese, perhaps they genuinely are; whatever the truth, the same can’t be said of the Porteños.
I guess it was the heat sapping their energy, but the Porteños looked tired as they lingered in the air conditioned cars of el Subte for a tad longer than one would normally do, or when they fanned themselves with newspapers and leapt from shadow to shadow in an exahusted pas de danse. They didn’t, by far and large, appear to be enjoying the hot season.
The Argentines seem a lot more pugnaceous than their northerly neighbours. Proofs of this heightened social awareness are legion on the city’s walls. Peronismo Militante is a slogan common throughout San Telmo. Macri mafioso says a tag scribbled on a kiosk within spitting distance from Congress. Victims of the society’s machismo or the police’s heavy hand – Lucía Pérez and Santiago Maldonado – are remembered in posters affixed everywhere.
It isn’t just this, though. To limit one’s analysis at protest marches and wall-tagging would be shallow and, more importantly, ungenerous towards the porteños. It’s not all just Evita and pressure group offices festooned with slogans such as Luchamos por su derechos. There’s more than that to this city, a lot more.
There’s the young lad who takes the time to explain to this lanky visitor how to recharge his Subte card. There’s the car on Line B erupting in a spontaneous applause at the end of a saxophonist’s exibition. Commuters on Line C do the same for a rapper. There’s the care with which everyone handles the notes, scribbled on scraps of paper, left by a young beggar working the train line, giving them back to him with a few coins. There’s the kindness shown by every single commuter, at PlazaMiserere, in dealing with the homeless man selling soft-tip pens to make ends meet.
Of all the facets and behaviours I’d seen of Buenos Aires’ inhabitants, the aspect that will remain with me the longest will be their humanity.
Non è da signori. This was a veritable leitmotiv of my youth. It’s a phrase hard to render properly into English, non è da signori. I doubt is very much in use these days; from my point of view, I heard it mostly from my grandmother when she wanted to point out that something – my behaviour, a sport I played, you name it – wasn’t gentlemanly, or worthy of an educated person.
Markets, I thought in those rather gullible years, weren’t da signori. Perhaps it was due to the general shabbiness of our city’s own, which I only saw at the end of the school day when a few stalls were left and only the detritus of the morning’s trades were left; but if you asked me, markets weren’t a nice place to go to.
As it often happens, it wasn’t until I flew the nest (not too far, for it was less than 70 km to Turin) that I started forming a different opinion, based on my own experience rather than on the influence of others.
Porta Palazzo market was, and is, very much unlike the rest of the old Turin city centre. It’s a sprawling city district, its beating heart a belle époque gallery made in cast iron and glass where one can find fresh vegetables and Romanian wines, catch of the day and the smelliest toma cheese, cheap clothes and Moroccan take-aways. At its margins lie an Oort cloud of Chinese bodegas and Nigerian minimarkets selling everything from pre-paid SIMs to plantain. It’s also the best place to buy drugs and, when the Saturday Balon flea market takes place, it’s also where the pieces of your stolen bicycle are likely to be found on sale.
With Porta Palazzo everything I’d ever known about markets turned on its head. Porta Palazzo was the start of a journey that brought me quite far. Billingsgate, Tsukiji, Noryangjin, Besiktas. The bazaars of Almaty, Osh and Dushanbe. The Mercado de San Pedro in Cusco. Isfahan’s labyrinthine Grand Bazaar. Not once was I scammed, not once poisoned. Can’t say the same of restaurants or cafés in any of those cities.
There’s a market in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. It sits perilously on a very important divide, the great chasm between the real deal and the tourist trap. Nuwara Eliya’s Central Market or Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel: which way will it go? Probably the latter, but perhaps not yet. There’s still a butcher or one of those shops selling everything from bread to washing powder where the retailers wear white coats.
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Markets aren’t just places where one can go shopping for foods that won’t turn his guts’ weather forecast to brown rain. They’re also the best way to take the pulse of a city, to sit and watch it come and go. Buenos Aires, I’d said it before and I’ll be saying it again, is the Real Madrid of people watching; San Telmo’s Mercado is its epicentre. And long may it last.
White smoke is rising in thick plumes from a shop on the south side of the road, cutting the perspective like a curtain hanging from the trees. Flames fan out intermittently and passers-by scatter, giggling nervously. Muffled explosions, then, add an undertone of drama. Contrary to what would have happened in London, half the barrio descended on the sidewalks to nose in. Some even bring out their chairs.
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If terrorism is on anyone’s mind it doesn’t show. I watch my new neighbours, for I’d just checked in at a nearby hotel that day, as they indulge in the very Mediterranean habit called, in Italian, farsi gli affari altrui (minding the others’ business). They are a diverse bunch, my fellow balvaneros: Bolivians, sturdy men with gleaming black hair; Venezuelans, almost to a man wearing the hat of their baseball team; Chinese shopkeepers; Dominicans and countless more, all enthralled by the spectacle that is spicing up this Saturday afternoon.
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Buenos Aires’ finest are already on scene, wearing their purple polos that makes them look like Torino FC fans.
Avenida Rivadavia is promptly blocked by a police cruiser, lights flashing, whilst the traffic wriggles like a skittish horse through the grid of one-way roads that lead away from the boulevard. An ambulance finds a hole through the irate clot of cars and is greeted with scornful jeers by the onlookers. “Donde estan los putos bomberos?” yells somebody from the shadow of a Chinese shop. An air conditioning unit drips water from up above as some sort of silent clue. Eventually the fire brigade arrives and everyone disperses – me included.
Somewhere, somebody must be selling iced Quilmes.
Sundays rhyme with market in San Telmo. In this politically-aware neighbourhood shutters go down over slogans such as Peronismo Militante and stalls mushroom on Plaza Dorrego and along Avenida Defensa, climbing above and around obstacles and roadworks. Handicrafts and old fur coats, tat and antique photos stretch for kilometres.
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I sit at a café on the southern edge of the plaza, tiny sparrows hovering like hummingbirds above the tables, ready to spoon up crumbs. There are tourists browsing the antiques and locals getting their blood pressure checked at an NHS gazebo; women with oversize crucifixes dangling from their necklaces inspect ancient bottles of eau de seltz whilst observant Jews cruise past pushing baby strollers.
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The staff at my bar, from the two waiters to the mamacita who obviously runs the shop, are indios. Unlike my Balvanera compadres they don’t have the strong, aquiline traits typical of the peoples of the Andes: their lineaments are softer, their build leaner, their gait almost a dance. People of the forest, Amazonas.
The man who stops and kisses all of them on the cheeks, taking the time to call the girl “Preciosa”, is their polar opposite: tall, with white hair combed backwards and scrupulously waxed moustache. The kind of man you’d be expecting to be immortalised in a statue standing tall in a Mitteleuropean square. He orders two café con leche for “mas tarde” and then proceeds to inspect a stall selling Oriental antiques, exchanging pleasantries with the owner who then explodes in a Homeric laugh; a former playboy strolls past, shirt unbuttoned to his belly, looking as if he’d had one Branca Menta too many.
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Palermo, in the north, is a neighbourhood undergoing an identity crisis. Part of it dreams of being Miami: condos, palms, gated communities. Part is still as it was 100 years ago, cobbled streets and delicate two-storey mansions shaded by leafy trees. Then there’s Palermo Viejo, where one can experience what it feels to be inside the artwork of a Bomba Éstereo album, with the added side serving of hipster mainstays such as craft beer and Frida Kahlo.
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Given its multi-faceted nature, it’s perhaps not a coincidence if odd things happen in Palermo, such as finding the mural painting of a pug or a Nagorno-Karabakh flag fluttering in the breeze outside a church.
It’s a fashionable, edgy and trendy barrio yet I don’t feel immediately out of place like a Jehovah’s Witness in a floating bordello. I sit down for a beer and another look at the colourful buildings and at the beautiful people that inhabit them before realising that, alas, my time’s up. On my way out, I notice a guy sits outside a pizzeria, soaking on the atmosphere. Somehow, I understand him very well.
It is estimated that up to 25 million Argentinians have a full or partial Italian heritage. This is approximately 50% of the country’s population. The converse is also true: having an Argentine correlation is, in Italy, as widespread as hosting a Juventus supporter in one’s family. Although one would argue that it’s nowhere near as unfortunate.
Up to the very night of my departure for Buenos Aires I thought my family was the proverbial odd one ought. Piedmontese call themselves bogianen, which those of you versed in the language of the French will have little issues to translate in ceux qui ne bougent pas. Those who won’t move. In true bogianen spirit, then, I always thought that no one in our family had ever ventured beyond the homely air of Europe.
I was wrong.
I rang my father before embarking. Sounding mildly surprised at the destination, though I’d already mentioned it, he asked if I was going to look out for some cousins of his. Actually, his grandma’s cousin. I didn’t know we had any.
My great-grandmother, who died on her 100th birthday for she always said that she’d get to 100 and that was it, had a cousin. Unlike every other male in the family he answered the call of duty not in the Alpine troops but, instead, in the (then Royal) Navy. His service during the Great War, somewhere in the shallow and narrow Adriatic Sea, was deemed enough for him to face the unknowns of a Transatlantic voyage, a one-way ticket to America. So, one fine day in the disillusioned years that followed the end of the war, he took his newlywed bride and joined the exodus of Italians heading for the New World.
The only issue in this masterplan was that, to quote what my father said whilst I giggled uncontrollably, “They went to the wrong America”. You see, sea-wolf cousin and his wife were meaning to board a ship bound for Ellis Island, off the coast of New York; in the chaos of Genoa’s port they instead went on a boat bound for Argentina. Oops.
It’s unclear how sea-wolf cousin and his poor wife had taken the news of that “minor” mistake. Knowing our family, it’s entirely possible that their fellow passengers had been serenated by a flowery assortment of dialectal locutions that associated deities with farm animals, but there’s no proof of that. Yet, being the pragmatic Piedmontese they were, they didn’t let this minor incident spoil their new start in life; after all, what’s 5,000 miles of error? They settled in the Buenos Aires province and went on to lead a quiet, moderately successful life, slowly disappearing into the fog of History as years passed.
It was then time to board. On the jetway to the plane I asked my dad if he remembered the town where sea-wolf cousin and wife had settled. Jovially he said that he did.
The last trip of the year ended today. I crossed the crucial threshold somewhere between the Brazilian rainforest and the Atlantic, blissfully unaware of it as I slept in my airplane seat wrapped in one of those duvets that are designed for people más friolero than me. But, honouring a tradition dating back a whopping one year, these are my proudest moments of 2018.
Uzbekistan’s Premier League.
It wasn’t the most refined game of football I’d ever witnessed. It wasn’t the most awe-inspiring stadium I’d ever set foot into. But to gate-crash Buxoro FC’s home ground ahead of their clash with Pakhtakor Tashkent, to sit with Bukhara’s finest ultras and to celebrate their victory was something I’ll struggle to repeat in 2019.
There was a computer game – for the life of me I cannot remember its name – where you could play some sort of organism, evolving from critter to, well, whatever you wanted. I suppose it mustn’t have been very popular in Alabama or some other place where creationism isn’t treated as the fairy-tale it is, but I digress; I actually wanted to use that game as a reference for my photographic abilities. I think it’s safe to say I started 2018 at the level of an amoeba and, now, I’ve worked my way upwards to that kind of organisms, such as krill, that nature has provided with legs in a place where there’s just water. Still, it’s an improvement and much of it is due to my experiments during a jet-lagged night in Incheon, South Korea.
The only Games that mattered.
This summer everyone looked at Russia where the football World Cup was being hosted. England worked itself into a collective state of priapism thanks to victories on sporting behemoths such as Tunisia, Panama and Colombia; eventually the French took the title home. But little did it matter to me, for the real Games – the World Nomad Games – were the event of this summer. And if you think football is more entertaining than Kok Boru, think again.
There’d be more to say, including the location of my favourite kebab shop – no need to be secretive, it’s Barbar in Beirut – but that’s it for now. It’s been a great year for travelling, but not so much under many other aspects. Crucially, there has been way too much stupidity. At work, in life and in the world in general. If I have to make a wish for 2019, then it’d be for it to be a year where logic prevails and where I’ll be consistently the dumbest person in the room/conversation.
And here is just a tiny sample of what’s about to come shortly.