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.
Never let photos in the way of a good story, I say. Ask anyone who’d read Thubron or Robb, writers of books without as much as a picture, and ask them if they hadn’t seen the Banguê restaurant, or Mount Kailash. Good writing is as powerful as any set of Hasselblad lenses and, one would argue, a lot cheaper.
Why this post, then? Why Bible-thumping against photography and then stick one in that’s all about them?
Well, I’m neither a man of virtue nor a good writer.
A few days ago, I felt as if I’d said everything about my visit to Seoul; yet, I still had some photos. Much like those characters in a Pirandello’s play whose title I butchered for this post, they were in search of something. Pirandello’s characters were looking for an Author; my pictures, bless them, already had one – whether they wanted that one is another story – but what they were missing was a story.
I suppose I could’ve left them behind; somehow, though, I knew I couldn’t. Irrational as it might sound, I thought I owed them something. Then I decided, as so often I do, to part ways with my own convictions and let these pictures be the story. Here they come.
First night in Seoul. I was at last, after many false starts, on my way to the Noryangjin fish market: I had been on the cusp of leaving my hotel room for a good hour before it finally happened. Something – be it an email, or a document to check online – would pop up and distract me. As I eventually slipped in the lift, I started nagging my memory for the title of a book, written by Italo Calvino, where the protagonist – a reader – had the same issue I experienced: he wants to read a novel, but despite his best intentions he keeps on being sidetracked. By the time I was on the kerb my brain had spat out the answer. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. And, right at that moment, I saw the young couple walking into the cone of light of the kiosk, much like I’d imagined the traveller. Click.
Incheon, a rainy Sunday morning at the pompously-named International Business District. We’d seized on the chance of a pause in the procession of squalls of rain and gusts of wind that were lashing our hotel when – surprise surprise – it started again. Surprised by the downpour, a man used his puffer jacket as he walked towards his car. His sense of urgency didn’t seem to be mirrored by any of his, better insulated, companions.
Morning had barely passed the baton to afternoon and these four sprightly gents were well into what I assume was their first round of beers, sitting outside the neighbourhood Mini-Stop market. The way they were laughing, and the generous humour that I could feel, brought me back to Italy: everywhere in the North of the country, perhaps not outside a grocery store but in bars, their peers would be sitting and laughing hard as well, maybe with small glasses of white instead of beers. And a non-stop stream of profanity in dialect, of course.
In these days of Instagram, a number of enterprising ventures have popped up, in and around the historic district of Bukchon, offering the ultimate selfie experience to the social media crowd. For a – fairly substantial, I imagine – amount of won punters can be issued with traditional dresses to wear for the duration of their stroll around the Hanok village. But what happens when the Instagramming is done and all that remains is to sit down and marvel at the number of likes piling up? Well, one could do as these ladies and opt for eating fried fish balls at a shop embellished by two hand-drawn adverts featuring Maggie and Bart.
Bukchon village is peppered with signs – hanging from walls or held by yellow-clad volunteers – pleading visitors to keep quiet, for the sake of the locals. It felt all a bit over the top given the traditional politeness and respect that is the mainstay of this corner of Asia. Besides, even if I were inclined to indulge in some Mediterranean fracas, how could I not obey to the cutest admonition ever?
Yes, I said 6 photos and with these two we’d be at 7. But… which one would you use when you inadvertently play with your camera’s focus? The Oriental bishop or the lady? Ah, choices. Let’s have both, shall we? After all I said I wasn’t a man of virtue.
There’s a neighbourhood, in Seoul, called Bukchon. Traditional and small-towny in a city of tens of millions, it’s familiar to Instagrammers worldwide.
Bukchon has many charms. There are windy hill roads and villas for which the term leafy has, undoubtedly, been coined. Ambassadors here rub elbows with Korea’s rich and powerful.
Its main charm, however, are the roads where traditional Korean houses have weathered years of harsh climate, a few major conflicts and an exponential economic growth. The handful of hanok, as they are called, are indeed cherished by anyone with a selfie stick and a social media account, and why blame them? They’re gorgeous.
The roads immediately east or west of those oh-so-Instagrammable alleys are normally left alone by tourists. Much in the same way that the least trodden path is the one where porcini mushrooms can be found, those streets have charms aplenty. And it’s all down to those who, in a deliberate if awkward reference to Shakespeare, I’ve decided to call The Merry Shopkeepers of Bukchon. Confused? Scroll down.
Every house has a shop, every shop is individually owned, and every owner has his or her photo proudly displayed outside. In elegant black-and-white tones, printed large or small on strong, sturdy canvas, they smile – or even laugh heartily – to the world, beckoning it in.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
The gulf from London, where finding a business not part of a franchise or chain is as rare as teeth in a hen’s beak, is gigantic and the attitude wholly refreshing. I find myself more inclined to stay here and to give my business to such smiley folks. Even when they just offer their backs.
It’s incredible, the difference a laughing person can make.
Or even a smiling one.
Who could be behind such an elegant campaign? Whose idea was it to turn these rather nondescript streets, these – let’s say it – normal shops into something one would love to stop at, visit and, perhaps, buy from?
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
There is a photographer’s studio on one of the streets: it’s undoubtedly the epicentre, as more portraits and photos testimony. Yet, most of our questions remain unanswered. And perhaps it’s better like this: at the end of the day, I don’t need to know the details; I’m perfectly content not to know. For me, Bukchon will forever be the borough of the Merry Shopkeepers.
The sun was setting; lights on a legion of buildings were turning on and I couldn’t pronounce the name of the neighbourhood not even if it helped to save my bacon. Speaking of bacon, I hadn’t eaten since the breakfast omelette, served on the plane a good eight hours before that moment. It was about time to get something down the gullet.
Dining in an unknown city – and if you cannot read the signs it couldn’t get any more foreign than that – is an art I did not, and still don’t, master. Sure, there were some familiar places: a 7-11 with its load of soft buns filled with red bean paste, labelled “Japan Bread Technology”, and a burger joint named Lotteria (lottery, in Italian). In the solitude of my 19t floor room, whilst outside light flickered suavely and traffic ebbed and flowed, I hatched a plan.
There was a fish market in Noryangjin, a few stations away from my hotel: images of Tsuijiki in mind I reasoned that if there was fish on sale there would be people cooking it for the benefit of workers or shoppers with a short appetite fuse. Like me. Deal.
Signs in halting English guided me out of the train station, along a road, down some steps and into an underground passageway to a large building, more distribution centre than Boqueria market. Inside, massive lamps bounced crude, clinical white light on an orange floor made lucid by an omnipresent film of water. Notices, signs and leaflets were everywhere: pinned to walls, hanging from ceilings, stapled to desks and stalls. I looked at them, written in intelligible Hangul characters, and marvelled at the simple, futuristic beauty of Korean writing. One could use these elegant letters as the blueprint for circuit boards, fully expecting the resulting hardware to function.
Contrary to other such establishment, Noryangjin market was open all around the clock. On the way there I wondered how on Earth that could be achieved and fretted about freezers or exsiccation; once inside, it turned out that, much to the contrary, the merchandise was as fresh as it got.
Under the relentless lights swam, crawled and walked countless fish, crustaceans and molluscs. Groupers, bass, sole, snappers and many more unknown finfish floated in huge tanks, gazing with their bulbous eyes at trays of molluscs and at tubs where crabs of all sorts stood, in chitinous stoicism, one on top of the other. Customers would come and point at one of the swimmers: promptly the unlucky sod would be plucked out of the gurgling water, dispatched and turned into sashimi or fillets. Crabs, on the other hand, would be bundled into black bin bags for their journey to the pot.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
I must admit a feeling of faint unease. I couldn’t but help relating what I was witnessing to a scene from the first Planet of the Apes, the one with Charlton Heston, that featured men in cages. I scurried upstairs, on the lookout for the promised restaurants.
The second level of the market was the promised land. Small restaurants, often nothing more than a few plastic tables, lined wide corridors running behind the trading floor. It seemed that each and every place was guarded by two or more punters tucking into a bewildering array of seafood prepared in ways I could only begin to understand. I couldn’t but feel some sympathy for the young couple that, in one corner, was smiling nervously at one another as they contemplated the gargantuan snow crab that had just been plonked on their table. Where do you start with that thing?
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Everything was new, mysterious and strange to the point that even the simple act of sitting down somewhere and ordering something felt as confusing as being initiated into a secret society. Humbled by such a display of culinary prowess I resolved to play more modestly, opting for a stall that did a brisk trade in fried animals of the deep. Aided by a friendly couple I settled for an optimistically large serving of whole shrimps and squid in batter, garnished with just a squirt of lime juice.
I might’ve had a few too many deep-fried crustaceans. That might explain why, once I alighted at Yeongdeungpo station, I chose to take the long way back, through some inviting back roads that promised to offer just the sort of walkabout that I needed to burn a few calories off.
The neighbourhood echoed of Tokyo’s Ueno with its narrow streets, low buildings and gingko trees yellowing in the autumnal night. A barber was still open, and so did a few convenience stores, casual restaurants and delis. Gluttony tempted me towards more fishy goodness under the form of fried tentacles, impaled on a stick and sprinkled with sesame seeds, but I resisted: I had more than my share for tonight.
People were walking home to a cluster of residential skyscrapers. On the walls of this forest of identical towers were abstract motifs, 3-digit numbers and a word in Latin characters, Prugio, its constructed meaning lost on me. A dark overpass led away from the clump of condominiums and towards the other side, above the rumbling trains. Memories of another gangway – the one above Aralsk’s railyard – rushed through my mind, but it could’ve been another planet.
The other side was decidedly less well kept. Minuscule rowhouses, built of flimsy wood, lined one side of the alley, giving way to cars parked on the street this flowed into: a herringbone of Hyundais and Kias sitting beneath a giant concrete overpass curving, almost with grace, above us. It was at that point that I noticed the people around me, including the elderly lady, hair coiffured with curlers, that beckoned me into one of the houses. She had an urgency that would’ve felt suspicious even if showed by the most welcoming Tajik villager: I looked around and noticed the prostitutes waiting for clients. I had to laugh: how likely was it for a foreigner to be coming here by chance? Most certainly, I reasoned as I giggled away, I had to be the first Westerner who decided to use a red-light district for a post-prandial stroll.
I pressed on, past the abandoned bedding of a homeless and three labourers playing dice; a little further twinkled some familiar signs: 7-11, Lotte Mart and, further still, Marriott. I was “home”.
The idea for this post’s title has been respectfully pinched from thislovely Instagram account.
The idea of jet-lag was so new to me that it took me an inordinate amount of time to come to the conclusion that what was keeping me awake at 3AM in a Seoul hotel room wasn’t debt or guilt but, rather, my own body clock. It was early evening in London.
Granted, there were worse places where to find oneself unable to have a decent snooze than where I was that night: a luxuriously large hotel room featuring amenities that I wouldn’t know how to use (such as a walk-in wardrobe), perched atop 47 stories (with a few more above) of skyscrapers in Incheon (cue below for the thing as seen during the day).
Silently I made my way to the huge, floor-to-ceiling glasswall that abutted on hundreds of meters of pure air. A cluster of high-rise condominiums, that looked so towering from the ground up, now seemed like Lego toys, scattered around a park that didn’t feel larger than a flower bed.
As I sat on a cushion by the window I couldn’t but help feel excited. All around me everything was new and exotic. Every step I made took me somewhere I hadn’t been before; even by going to the corner shop – was there one, by the way? – I’d be breaking new ground. It occurred to me that I’d have been the world’s most enthusiastic Victorian explorer.
Plus, I couldn’t deny a certain feeling of partiality towards the building we were staying in. Skyscrapers have since long exerted a strong impression on me: far from seeing them as avatars of some latent male inadequacy (big phalluses and all that), I always perceived those buildings as symbols of humanity’s progress. There they were, tangible testimony that we could do what nature never designed us to do, living in the sky. Sitting on that cushion by the window, in the Korean night, I felt very much part of mankind’s avant-garde. Laugh if you will, I won’t take it badly.
It was late, but still there was movement on the streets and lights in the apartments. Where were they going? What were they doing? Could these people see me, sat cross-legged in the dark, looking down on them? At that moment, almost out of the blue, I remembered a DJ Krush song, Mu Getsu, that inspired one of my first, clumsy, attempts with composite photography. Without a tripod or a remote shutter controller, things were bound to be sub-optimal, but I decided to give it a go. The first result wasn’t half bad.
I left the camera on for longer, figuring I could wait for sunrise and do something with it; but when the alarm rang and I stumbled awake from the deep slumber I’d eventually fallen into, the day had long since begun.
If you’re familiar with the idiosyncrasies of English society, you’ll undoubtedly have encountered the odd phenomenon that, every time a major football tournament pops up, grips the entire nation. Chanting “Football’s coming home”, the entire England – from Hadrian’s Wall to Bognor Regis – will decide that this year is the yearand that their national team will bring home whichever trophy is up for grabs. Except that it never is.
The last few weeks have been pretty similar, from a travelling point of view, to the misfortunes of English football: work or private gallivants had been planned, sometimes even paid for, only to sublimate from solid reality to ephemeral desire in the space of a phone call. Resigned to stay in London, I resolved to get re-acquainted with a part of the city that I used to visit every day. West Hampstead.
Chances are that, no matter how often you’ve visited the city, you mightn’t have heard of West Hampstead, and of the Heath, the park that crowns it. This, it’s my firm belief, is because Hampstead wants it this way. You won’t find hedge fund managers boasting about the size of their portfolio; this is a place for viscounts with a passion for soaps.
Hampstead sits comfortably in the very top tier of London’s most expensive postcodes, together with other crème de la crème boroughs such as Belgravia or Kensigton but, unlike them, it’s not clogged with Chelsea tractors driven by Russian oligarch or footballers. West Hampstead is subtle, a place where the pedigree of those men and women in wax jackets and wellies is as long and illustrious as the one of the Wartburg dogs they take out for a stomp along the paths I used to jog through.
West Hampstead always inspired me sympathy for the eccentricity of its inhabitant, for its village feeling and for the constant reminder of that bygone era when everything was “Jolly good”; if ever there was a place where the days of Agatha Christie ever came to life, West Hampstead is it. So, let us start a journey through the Heath, from a side gate off Finchley Road to Parliament Hill’s belvedere. And let’s do it in company of some of the best and oddest newspaper titles coming from all corner of the countries collected by the Beeb, proof that eccentricity is still legion in this country. And guess what? One of these titles comes from Ham & High, Hampstead’s newspaper. But I won’t spoil the fun of telling you which one it is.
Dog gets stuck in TV cabinet
Fury after bus fails to appear
Toilet curse strikes again
Woman in sumo wrestler suit assaulted her ex-girlfriend in gay bar after she waved at man dressed as a Snickers bar
People in Lebanon spend more than 16% of [their] individual productive time in traffic.
Urban Transport Development Project – World Bank
For six months, straddling a winter and early summer of a few years ago, I tried commuting to work by bicycle. I was as fed up by the Tube as I could possibly be, and a job role change, requiring a switch from office hours to 6-on-3-off shifts introduced me to the night buses, which could be even worse than the Piccadilly Line. Besides, I used to cycle to lessons and work in Turin. There was, however, a little difference with the civilised stroll I used to do there, along segregated bike paths or parks by the river, and the 15-mile (one way) journey that I was to experience, all on major roads where an enlightened mind had decided that double-decker buses and carbon-fibre bikes could, effectively, share the same lane.
Traffic congestion in Lebanon is causing economic loss of 8-10% of GDP.
Ziad Nakat, Senior Transport Specialist, World Bank
Beirut has a problem with traffic. This is hardly breaking news and it puts her in company of almost any major city in the developing world where an increase personal spend has been rapidly invested on a set of wheels, regardless of whether the roads these wheels were going to run on could support them or not. But, unlike many of those developing cities, Beirut seemed not to have neither a system of mass transit transportation nor plans to get one. Compound the problem with the fact that the majority of drivers appeared to have found their driving licences in an Easter egg’s surprise, and voilà, here’s why Beirut felt devilish to drive or walk through. On our gallivants, coughing on the exhausts and dodging SUVs parked almost on every sidewalk that wasn’t protected by metal spikes, we started seeing murals from The Chain Effect.
Vehicles [in Beirut] have a very low occupancy rate, estimated at 1.2 people per vehicle.
The murals were beautiful, well executed and had some great punch-lines. Burn fat not oil. If you had a bike you’d be home by now. They resonated with me, for they were two of the thoughts that had led me to cycling to work in the first place. But there was something else, in Beirut, that reminded me of my own experience: much in the same way that I’d sold my bike and got an Oyster card back, there weren’t any bikes whizzing through the bumper-to-bumper traffic in Hamra or elsewhere. Six months after my experiment started, a nip with a silver Range Rover at a roundabout graced by a pub going by the name The Jolly Waggoner had sent me spinning on the wet tarmac, a jumble of wheels and tubes and reflective Lycra that, luckily, attracted the attention of an incoming Lithuanian lorry driver. A continent away, I suppose the Beirut riders had come to my same realisation: burning fat and getting home sooner aren’t quite worth it if you can’t show off your beach body or get home at all.
I once met an elderly lady who lived in a minuscule Alpine village of which she was the only permanent inhabitant. Well into her seventies when we crossed paths, she was busy chopping down a young spruce tree, manoeuvring an axe with the flair that comes with practice. She politely waved away my offer for help and, having thinned down the branches, she started dragging the trunk with one hand, walking. My dog decided to sit down to admire the spectacle and, if ever I saw a look of admiration on a German shepherd dog, that was the day. “They’re easiest to cut down when it’s full moon” she explained as she legged it up the trail. “It’s the harvest moon”.
Fifteen-or-so years later her words came back to me, as I entered the A4 motorway on a lovely late summer evening. A huge, pinkish moon was rising above the motorway, just before my eyes. Harvest moon.
September 29th, 2018 was the last day of summer, as far as we were concerned. Trying, and failing, to shake off a Neil Young earworm, T and I pulled up for coffee at a bar like dozen others in rural Piedmont, that part of the region where rice paddies are a dime a dozen and where the weather is either fog or heat. Even the word for the humid heat sounds oppressive. Afa.
It was warm, today, but not stupidly so, which was a good thing, for we were about to add another tack to a ritual that had been running, in this country, for at least 25 centuries. Grape harvesting, or vendemmia.
T and I went to school together, and later shared a room through university. Two years ago, he’d only know how to open a bottle of the stuff. Now, this was his second harvest.
A trickle of friends arrived at the vineyard. They were, at their core, friends from high school, with whom we’d kept in contact throughout the years. Two have brought along their wife and husband, one his dad. It was a diverse bunch, as well: T, born in Sri Lanka; R, hailing from Romania; me, living abroad. It also was the most overqualified bunch of grape pickers in Novara province. One of the fathers even used to design nuclear reactors. Despite that – how many engineers does it take to change a lightbulb? – we made good progress, filling basket after basked with grapes. Erbaluce, Nebbiolo, Bonarda.
It was, though, tough work. This year, say in unison T and M, his second-in-command, has been good: cold when it needed, hot when required, rain just so, no hailstorm. A far cry from 2017 with frost in April, drought in June and hail in August. Yet, not everything was hunky-dory. It’d rained three times in the last few days, rolling sessions of thunderstorms that didn’t give enough time to the fruit to dry up. The result was that, here and there, individual grapes swelled up until they burst open, causing the ones around them to rot. We spot those rotten fruits from their colour, a light purple, and by their sickeningly sweet smell that attracted legions of fruit flies. As we cut through the unusable grapes, I asked T how much he thought he’d lost. “200 kilograms”, he replied, approximately 5% of the total. Gone in the time it took for some rain to fall down.
Once dusk fell we were back at the cantina, to feed the gurgling machine that squashed the grapes. Stalks flowed out of one end; wort pumped out of another side, into a towering crowd of steel tanks. One ton and a half had been harvested for the day, 600 litres of wine once all was going to be said and done. The evening fell as we finished the work, stopping then to taste a sip of the wort. One year from now, if nothing – freeze, heat, bacteria – got in its way, it’d be joining the bottles from the 2017 vintage in the nearby cellar.
That, however, was the future. For now, we knew that, tomorrow, we’d be back for more of the same.