Coastal escapism.

I needed out.
Out of walls, weapons, checkpoints and people convinced of being on first-name-terms with God. I needed a place where bigots were rarer than pandas, alcohol plentiful and the attitude on weed lax.
I needed Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv is everything I like of Israel and its people. It’s a worthy capital – if not in true sense at least morally – to the culture who’s given us relativity, Google, the polio vaccine and Beastie Boys: a city of go-getters, of solution-finders, of smart people that have a hard time respecting queues and not speaking their minds. Plus, they seem to have a highly commendable inclination to driving Alfas.
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From the central bus station, where the sherut drops us, to my hotel Tel Aviv flows in a grid of joyous, lively shabbiness. My hotel sits on the edge between lively-but-run-down and edgy. A building site for a mass-transit station is the promise of gentrification to come, but for now it’s mostly young lads having a drink at the bars downstairs.
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Further down the road is a series of quaint villas and turn-of-the-century buildings built with flair and care, most of them adorned with the sort of boutiques that don’t ever seem to be finalising a sale. Here and there are demonstrations of the unexpected turns of history: the house of Tel Aviv’s founder is now a sushi restaurant. A bomb-making facility that would normally be raided by anti-terror police is now a stop on the city’s Independence trail. Relativity, I guess.
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It’s a blustery day. The sea has mellowed the weather but wind and rain land in waves like Tom Hanks in Normandy and we can’t do anything but taking it on the chin. Red signs plaster the beach, warning against going out for a swim: in fairness, why would you. The Mediterranean has morphed into a relentless beast, lashing at the chain, foaming at the mouth in an incessant torrent of breakers. Black rags of cloud cruise in the sky trailing tentacles of rain like flying medusas. It’s great.
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I take refuge back into the city. Boulevard Rothschild is a quiet, tranquil affair of families going on a post-prandial stroll and youngsters eating out. If it feels eerily familiar it’s because it is. The park behind my first home might’ve had birch trees but the buildings around are exactly the same. Same rounded balconies, same roll-up shutters, same cedar-green plaster. Who knows, perhaps there’s even a kid in a yellow beanie hat peddling up and down in his toy Testarossa.
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Tel Aviv isn’t pretty and there are some serious crimes against architecture (exhibits A and B below), but it’s likeable. What’s not to like of a city where there are bars playing the Supremes as the roads echo of waves and the air is rich with the musty smell of sea? What’s not to like of a place where there’s no zealot ordering this AM-PM shut so that I can buy hummus, pita, beer and strawberries?
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Back at the beach the sun is blinding Yafo whilst, further up, we sit in a twilight zone of sorts, suspended between darkness and light. Surfers bob on their boards as they wait for a decent wave whilst kite surfers, spurred by the wind, are having an absolute corker gliding up and down the coast in a carousel of hypnotic beauty.
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Then, it’s all over. Another one of those flying medusas – a particularly big, gnarly one – veers over above us, unleashing a tsunami of wind. I retreat towards the hotel, listening to the rain pattering my anorak like Georgie Denbrough in the first pages of It, just without Pennywise offering a balloon from the gutters (quick glance at the nearest storm drain). Now, how about that hummus.
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Behind the wall.

It takes a while for me to get the hang of Checkpoint 300. Eventually a corridor in nude concrete and steel, half prison half abattoir, delivers me in a street cul-de-sac’d by the wall. Closed shops and scraps of paper wafting around in Brownian motion. Cabbies offer rides but, using what Google Translate says is the equivalent of No thanks, I’m walking I say Laa, shukran, inaa amshi and they all return to their cars.
Still wondering if I managed to send my message across or if I’d just confided that I’d rather be riding an elephant seal I walk into Bethlehem. The city hasn’t changed much since I last been here and the similarities with Mea Shearim, over the border in Jerusalem, are there for anyone to see. The same stone buildings, bootleg extensions, ungainly bowindows and odd balconies are proof that planning offices on either side of the border aren’t exactly mobbed by applicants.
A concrete dichotomy, pushing eight meters tall but feeling a lot higher, bisects the city. It sprouts out of side streets and carries on in monolithic nonchalance, impervious to the graffiti that cover its lower limbs or the scars left by petrol bombs on its watchtowers. I turn a corner and the wall is there, as careless as the 25-meters blue whale that had surfaced inches away from our boat off the coast of Sri Lanka, oblivious to our presence and perfectly happy regardless of whether we were there to see her or not.
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Behind it is The Walled Off hotel. It’s early, the gallery hasn’t opened yet and neither has the museum; no customer has yet descended to eat breakfast and it’s obviously too early to check in. But yet I’m welcomed with open arms, offered a drink, a place to dry my soaked clothes and a coffee on the house.
The Walled Off opened in 2017, marking the centenary of the British mandate in Palestine. A shit show of such epic proportions, of such momentous implications, that you’d guess they had Priti Patel and Dominic Raab running it. Lone in a crowd of establishments that would rather gloss over the wall, catering instead to the religious trade, this place – created by Banksy and other artists – is a detour worth making.
I’m not one for understanding art or high-end hotels. In fact I’m a man of modest needs: give me a walk-in shower and one of those tiny shampoo flacons so I can play Godzilla having a bath and I’m happy. But this place is different.
Irony and cruel juxtaposition are the leitmotivs running through the Walled Off. The theme is old Britannia, an imprinting of green wallpaper, dark polished wood and plenty of lucid Chesterfield sofas scattered over three sprawling floors. Royalist paraphernalia clutters the walls like it surely does in the homes of most Workington Brexiteers. Charles’ and Di’s wedding commemorative cups, a view of Windsor painted on a ceramic plate and a lot more. But that’s when it all changes, when the boring English normality is wrecked by a reminder of what the Middle East often means.
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Rows of CCTVs are nailed to the walls like hunting trophies. Next to them, above a piano playing a Jarvis Cocker motive every day at tea time, are three falling putti all breathing through airplane-style oxygen masks. A crucifix has been retrofitted as a grappling hook, knotted rope and all. Jesus looks to the heavens but sees only three flying drones, a red dot shining a hole in his forehead. Next to the entrance a triptych of oil paintings depict the aftermath of an Aegean refugee landing and, right beside it, a Nativity set shows how Jesus would be born in today’s Bethlehem.
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After having done an installation in Gaza Banksy was quoted as saying “I don’t want to take sides. But […] what you’re really looking at is a vast outdoor recruitment centre for terrorists. And we should probably address that for all our sakes”. I can read this message throughout the rooms, here. We probably ought to address the elephant in the room.
I too, don’t want to take sides. Actually, I do; but it’s not the one you think. And it’s not the other either. The world isn’t black or white and the Middle East is the greyest of places. Nowhere like here is the truth that we’re all sinners truer: for every nasty piece of work on one side there’s another on the other; for every drone strike there’s a Qassam missile. The side I’m on is neither Bibi’s, nor Abu’s. It’s the side of the people, of those who – since 1917 – have been routinely shafted by those in power and by those who wanted to overthrow them. I’m pro Shlomo from Tel Aviv who would very much like to board a bus without being blown up and I’m pro Waleed.
Who’s Waleed? He’s the Walled Off official tour guide. A quintessential Palestinian in leather jacket, woolly sweater and packet of fags, he’s a forty-something with strong lineaments and a stubble coarser than sandpaper. He runs tours of the wall and the refugee camp twice a day for everyone who wants to do them.
The weather is more Scotland than Holy Land, so Waleed’s little Corsa is press-ganged into action. There’s three of us and, before we all pile up into the car, Waleed invites us to check his number plate. Politely we stare at a green-and-white series of numbers and letters before he, in the flourishing Neapolitan-lawyer-style that was his trademark, explains why he asked. With this plate, he says, he can’t pass the wall. Reaching Jerusalem, driving to the sea, is out of question; but so is a long list of roads within the West Bank itself. Route 557. Route 5. Route 404 (Road not found, one might say). Route 413. Route 60. Route 43. And more.
It’s a first glimpse into the reality of the West Bank, into the challenges of living here, a first dig into the heap of restrictions, paperwork and controls created to limit the movement of the population. Chief amongst them, of course, is the wall.
Both Waleed and the Walled Off’s museum are light on the reasons for it being built and it’d be remiss of me to do the same and to gloss over one statistic: 70 bombings in three years, 293 victims. All these were perpetrated by suicide bombers originating from the West Bank, with Israeli civilians their victims. After the wall went up, the number decreased to 12 in the same length of time and is now at zero.
Gut-wrenching as the thought is, if you were to frame it this way a wall mightn’t be the worst idea. Israel on one side, Palestine on the other, concrete and a generous helping of razor wire in the middle, keeping sides apart until collective wisdom prevails (or the sun’s turning into a red giant swallows us all, whatever comes first). Yet, something’s not fully squared out. There’s a lot to hint that, rather than following the Red Brigades’ motto Unum castigabis, centum emendabis, Israel’s decided to punish 100 to educate one.
The Green Line border, where you’d expect the wall to be, is some 5 klicks away from Bethlehem. Yet here is the wall, snaking around us in a procession of 90 degrees angles and narrow turns, carving peninsulas of inaccessibility in the city’s urban texture. Separating olive groves from neighbourhoods, mosques from the faithful, graveyards from descendants, granting access to Rachel’s tomb to the settlers and keeping the Palestinians away with concrete and water cannons spewing ‘skunk water’. I do get Israel’s right for safety, I really do. I just don’t know how to reconcile it with this.
If ever there was an embodiment of the negative externalities of Israel’s policies Nabil, 22-year-old born and bred in the Aida Refugee camp, would be it. Tel Aviv is an hour’s drive away yet he’s never been able to walk its corniche. Or to see the sea. His forthcoming trip to Italy, guest of a family from Brescia, will be his first one overseas: banned from flying out of Ben Gurion he’ll have to drive to Amman, 10 hours and 3 checkpoints away, driving around and beside the dozens of settlements – judged illegal by the international community – that dot the West Bank.
All Nabil and his friends know of Israel is the wall, the rocks and Molotovs they throw at it and what comes out in response: tear gas, rubber bullets, sponge grenades, flash-bangs, stinger grenades. Has he, or any of his friends, ever had the chance to speak with an Israeli, to sit down together and eat and drink to find, in the words of uncle Tony Bourdain, some common ground? Nabil laughs in incredulity. “How? With that thing in the way?”
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Evening falls, the skies having miraculously cleared up a bit. I walk along the wall, heading towards the contorted knot of streets that is the city centre. Somebody has attentively, tenderly even, painted a young Leïa Khaled holding a rifle. Her claim to fame is to have hijacked flight TWA 840 for a terrorist organisation. A few meters downhill, on a wall not far from a set of concrete blocks plonked by Israeli soldiers to provide cover during raids, somebody has stencilled the profiles of sheikh Yassin, founder of Hamas, and Hassan Nasrallah, current secretary of Hezbollah.
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I climb upwards, following streets familiar from years ago. Manger square opens up lively and serene at dusk, kids playing and tourists entering the Nativity church. As I stand there I’m reminded of something that Waleed mentioned in passing, of how 27 years ago – before a Jewish terrorist murdered Yitzhak Rabin and the peace process – things were better than they are today. Can we realistically hope to have some improvement if things have just grown worse and there’s no way for neighbours to interact with one another?
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Jérusalem la nuit.

It’s not a long ride from Ben Gurion to Jerusalem, especially if it’s 4 AM and there’s little, in terms of traffic, to slow down our yellow-and-white sherut van.
We weave in and out of the most conservative neighbourhoods of the city, our Haredim travel companions leaving one by one in the same order they’ve come on board. “Those who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” doesn’t work on the sherut and, besides, it’s the New Testament. No one reads the sequel ’round here. Soon it’s my turn: the walls, the moat still littered by the stone blocks tossed there by Vespasian’s marauding legions, can only mean Damascus Gate.

It’s quiet at this time on a Friday. But for a few cops all muffled up against the cold, I’m alone. It’s way too early for even the first bus. I walk uphill to get some blood flowing in the legs numbed by the flight and the Lilliputian sherut seats and chance upon New Gate.

Jerusalem sleeps. Religious nutjobs of all denominations are all in bed, dreaming of being right, and I share the street with the odd passer-by and cats. Drops of rain constellate the ageless stones as if the marble is sweating. Frankincense burns from a tin plate left on the steps of a building decorated with the insignia of the Franciscan order.

I fumble my way past the Ethiopian monastery, slingshot beyond the Holy Sepulchre and somehow land at the end of the road leading up to Damascus Gate. Day has broken whilst I ambled in the rabbit warren that is the Old City and now the sky is battleship grey.
Damascus gate has, for time immemorial, rhymed with Arabia. Its smells and perfumes are, through and through, those of Cairo, of Beirut: inebriating coffee, fresh bread with sesame seeds, the sweet decay of waste left behind from yesterday’s trades. Past the road are a motley crew of white-and-blue buses, those that don’t feature on the municipality’s luminous panels at bus stops. Some are Chinese Yutongs, barely six months old and already falling to bits; others are Israeli knock-offs. I board one specimen of this latter variant.

I hand my five shekels to the driver and I’m asleep before we make it out of the car park. A siren – loud, fast, angry – shakes me awake. I’m the only one left on board and the driver’s been calling out to me to get off; he’s still in the middle of the road, holding some significant traffic. A military jeep, insectoid in its beefed-up armour and metal grilles. I pirouette out of the bus and onto the tarmac, backpack in hand, disoriented and alone. Everyone else has either left or knows what they’re doing. As for me, I haven’t a clue. I’ve never walked through Checkpoint 300.

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“The Stranger in the Woods”, by Michael Finkel, Simon & Schuster

Source
One fine day in 1986, sometime after the Chernobyl disaster and well into Reagan’s second term in office (and a few months before my birth, though it wasn’t mentioned), a twenty-something called Christopher Knight parked his almost-new Subaru Brat at the end of a small road in Northern Maine. He left the keys on the dashboard, closed the door and walked into the woods.
He wouldn’t leave them until 2013.
There are some stories that can almost write themselves, whose books are all but condemned to becoming best-seller; then there’s the story of Chris Knight. A man who spent 27 years in utmost isolation, without speaking to a person – but for a “Hi” said to a trekker – and a man who resorted to committing thousands of break-ins to gather what he needed for surviving. On the face of it, an interesting case. A compelling human adventure. Something worth hearing on the radio, something that might make you think for a few minutes before the DJ switches back to music. But making a book out of it? Out of a story where no words are uttered for 27 years (but for “Hi”)? It takes some talent to give this story justice. A certain breed of writer. Luckily, it found Michael Finkel.
My edition of The Stranger in the Woods comes with a splendid, 1980s-style, artwork on the cover: the silhouette of a man standing, alone, in an immense and eerie forest, a torch shining a minuscule beacon of light. It echoes of Goonies, of those Italian editions of Stephen King printed by Sperling & Kupfer. The artwork was what attracted me at first, what stopped my amblings around the second floor of Chiswick’s Waterstones. Then what sealed the deal was a phrase, printed in small font near the top right-hand corner: “A breath-taking book”, signed by Sebastian Junger. If Finkel managed to steal the breath of the author of non-fiction masterpieces such as War and The Perfect Storm then I was in.
Junger was right. At 203 pages with notes, The Stranger in the Woods is agile, more pamphlet than tome. The kind of thing you’ll breathe through in three there-and-backs of commuting; but to think it shallow would be an injustice, a big mistake. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to reflect so hard on a book for ages. At least from my first reading of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
There’s so much in this book that it’s hard to know where to start, how to unravel the thread. There’s obviously the story of Chris Knight and of his incredible life choice, told from a multitude of angles – friends, family, those he robbed, those who caught him and, ultimately, by himself – but more on that later. And that, in itself, is an incredible tale. Then there’s the insight into the world of hermits, figures who peppered the history of our planet with their refusal to commit to the ways of the world, to bow to the rat race.
More importantly, what makes this book special is the angle chosen by Finkel: like Junger in his works, he’s not there to explain, translate or pass judgement. He’s there to tell a story, to be as complete and thorough as he can be. Chris Knight’s inventiveness and resilience finds as much space as the damage – material and psychological – he inflicted on the community he routinely robbed; in the book equal space is given to those who respect his way of life and those whose existence he made harder. But for a few tricks to keep up the tempo, there’s very little space given to dramatization.
Then there’s also another story, narrated with nothing but a few broad brushstrokes, a few quotes: the one of the relationship between author and protagonist, between Finkel and Knight. A handful of encounters in jail, talking through those phones we all see in movies, a couple of conversations face to face and some letters: enough to add another layer to this beautifully complex book.
I guess that my favourite aspect of The Stranger in the Woods is that it’ll make you think. In explaining the life choices of a man who decided to secede from our society, who decided to escape all contacts with the rest of us in pursuit of his own way, Finkel will make you ponder. About us, about you, about how we live, about why we seem to be all blindly following an obliged choice – work, commuting, mortgage, “spending the prime of one’s life in a cubicle looking at a screen” – without actually stopping to ask ourselves if this is really what we want.
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North of the sun.

I’ve never flown this far north.
On the moving map a rendition of our aircraft is hurtling down a steep curve, a headfirst plunge along a yellow arc linking London to the Pacific Northwest. We’ve climbed north, past Scotland and Iceland and the dark seas inbetween, peaked above Greenland and now we’re on the descent stage, polar ices still underneath us.
Except we aren’t descending, much in the same way as we haven’t been climbing. We are cruising smoothly at the same altitude, engines purring along in a distant hum. But it’s nice to think of ‘humps’, of climbing up to the Pole and all that jazz.
I take a break from the devilish combination of MS Project and Excel to take a look outside. Of all of those lands that I call “overflight countries”, Greenland is one of those I yearn to see the most. Alas it’s never happened and today isn’t the day either. We’re north of the sun and the full moon isn’t strong enough to illuminate the ice below. All I can see is the methodical pulse of the aircraft’s strobe lights and the reflection of our satellite on the flexing wing. Greenland sleeps in the perennial winter night, its secrets absconded and invisible. I sigh and promise myself to try again in the future before I return to “doing the needful”.
It mightn’t seem so, but this is a daytime flight – take-off from London happened at 14:30, arrival is scheduled for 16:30 local time – and British Airways is enlightened enough to allow passengers to keep their window shades up, unlike certain others who’ll order the hatches battened even if it’s 9AM and everyone is as alert as a meerkat. That’s why, as we cross the tormented parcel of sea sandwiched between the scrum of islands that make Canada’s northern archipelago, I sense a change coming from outside.
The sky’s no longer indigo-black. Behind us night is still queen but we’re past that, flying into an ethereal twilight zone. We are swimming in an atmosphere bluer than Neptune’s and there is enough light to glimpse, down below, a polar landscape of indescribable beauty. White ice runs in monolithic composure everywhere, fissuring here and there, smoothing out and then breaking again under the strain of unseen currents and obstacles.
I strain to look ahead, in our direction of travel (not an easy feat when facing backwards, let me tell you). We are barrelling towards a distant red glow, a band of light at the far end of the horizon. A promise of sunlight and warmth: a few hours away from us, but still months far for the lonesome tundra of Nunavut.
An hour lapses. The red glow has mutated, becoming a golden hue that fills half the sky. I guess it’s not an accident that every civilisation has, at some point, worshipped the sun. Beneath us the panorama is, too, changing. Dark spots pockmarks the ground like a black and white leopard skin. Vegetation, perhaps? But the biggest surprise is what lies in the sky, just behind our wing.
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The heavens have turned purple; a band runs across them like on the flank of a marlin. Perhaps it’s the side effect of having spent hours dealing with dreary things such as plans, dependencies and budgetary forecasts, but my mind decides that it’s a last-ditch attempt from the night to lure us back in her reign. But it’s too late.
We emerge into sunlight above an airport. A road leads somewhere, perhaps to the town of Whitehorse. It’s the first sign of humans since we left Scotland. Behind us, in a dramatic reversal of roles, the night has shrunk away into a small wedge of sky. Come back, it seems to plead.
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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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