Category Archives: Places – Real and Imaginary

Being led up the juice can path

Many years ago I spent several weeks in the Sahara desert. One part of the trip was a journey from Tamanrasset to the oasis of Djanet. About seven hundred kilometres as I recall. There was no road then, just pistes and only four or five places along the route where one could get water. One of them being an abandoned foreign legion fort where the water was salty.

I was travelling with two Italian friends. By the time we got to Tamanrasset, the vehicle we had started out with was no longer available, so we arranged to be carried by a Libyan truck which was travelling to and past Djanet.

The truck’s cargo was goats and after we had secured our passage, we spent a day watching the driver bargaining prices with a succession of goatherds. I remember various herds of goats scattered around the landscape waiting for their turn to be inspected. As the sun went down, a deal was struck and we all set off.

The goats were loaded on the upper deck of the truck. We (and twenty-odd Mauritanian immigrants) were sat in two rows on a platform on top of the driver’s cabin. I and my two friends were sat in the back row near the edge. This meant that for the whole journey you received an unceasing succession of friendly butts in the back from the goats. If you wanted to hold on to something, you could grip the bars separating you from the goats, but not for too long because being butted on the fingers really hurts. The people in the front row didn’t have anything to hold onto and I remember that every half an hour or so we tugged a gentleman in front of us back up to a safe position, since being rather heavy he used to slip down inch-by-inch towards the front and the road.

It was a very spectacular way of travelling, although we soon decided our driver was mad and began to call him Amin. At one point, he had a race with another truck.

It was not a surprise really when the truck broke down. The crew dug a hole in the ground, drove the truck over it and proceeded, as far as I could see, to disassemble the engine and then re-assemble it. This did not seem to help. Despite what we had read about people always helping each other in the desert, none of the vehicles which came by, stopped to inquire whether we were in trouble. Eventually it was decided that the goatherd would set off on his own on foot with the goats, while we proceeded, very slowly, on three cylinders. So slowly, in fact, that when we got to Fort Gardel, the next watering place, he was already there. Eventually, though, we reached Djanet. The last few miles were spectacular, with sand dunes on the right and basalt and sandstone cliffs on the left.

Reaching an oasis after crossing the desert is a big event. After you have spent days without seeing plants or water, you seem to have reached a haven of luxuries: water, dates, oranges, buildings, trees. We found a hotel which was completely empty. The manager gave us one key, to an entire wing. We had fifteen showers to choose from. Djanet would have been even more spectacular if we hadn’t arrived in the vicinity of a national holiday. They told us that all the aircraft in the country had been requisitioned for the fly-by. It seemed a bit unlikely, but when we went to the market it was obvious that there hadn’t been any deliveries for a long time. I remember an array of stalls displaying nothing at all. The emptiness was interrupted by one or two cans of sardines here and there.

One evening, though, I saw something which looked as if it had been charmed up out of a legend. A little path broke off from the road. It was marked out by a row of lit-up fruit-juice cans. I walked down the path and came to a café. The counter was built from fruit-juice cans too. I almost expected to meet a djinn. I hadn’t drunk fruit juice for weeks.

I walked up to the counter. “Yes?” the man said. “I’d like a fruit juice” I said. He looked at me for a while. He looked at me as if he had been tending a bar whose counter was made of brick and someone had just asked him for squeezed brick juice.

“Mint tea?” he asked. Because that the only thing he had.

 

New Rome bus routes

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This is the third time this has happened to me. I open the Rome bus app (Roma Bus), click on the tab to check the route of a bus (it was the 32 this time) and a screen appears with a map of a large part of North-West Africa. Are there secret bus routes running down, for example, the border of Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria to a terminus near Lagos?

If there is bus of this kind what is its number: 13 ?

And what would it look like? Perhaps like this:

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A definition of Naples

A city where nothing is ever at the same angle

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Picture taken in May 2017 and processed with Prisma

I love Naples and the Neapolitan language. Walking around Naples in May 2017, I came across this street where nothing appeared to be at the same angle. It seemed to me to depict, not just physically,  one of the characteristics of Naples which make it such an interesting place.  So I took this photo, which I processed with Prisma, an app which turns photos into drawings, to try in order to emphasise all the loudly disparate angles.

The S’s of Mexico

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Listen to the poem here

On my last day in Mexico,
Mexico City bade farewell to me
before I had had time to pack my bags.
I looked for water late at night
and every road performed
a drum-roll down each side—
shop-shutters closing,
clanging, just for me—

Goodbye, good luck
and most of all
good night.

At last, inside a little lane,
under a string of
dangling, dismal, wind-blown bulbs
I found a stall
still open for
some paltry scraps of business.
A plastic tub kept
a few bottles
cool and bobbing.
Behind it sat a lady,
one of those women
whose chairs seem to have
grown from out beneath them,
with which they have attained
a state of stability
too perfect
ever to relinquish.
She made no move to serve me
but with a languid flick
of just one finger
beckoned a child
crouching by the kerb.
“She likes to do the selling,” she said.
The girl came over chuckling
at her appointment
to a grown-up task.
She was so small, I
wasn’t even sure that
she could speak.
Never had I bought
anything from one
so young.

Read more…

Memories of Pyongyang

North_korea_bannerIn the 1990’s, when the grandfather of the current Kim was North Korea’s Great Leader, I spent a week in Pyongyang working as an interpreter for the Italian delegation at a huge conference which was attended by most of the world’s nations. I have decided to note down what I remember now, before the place becomes a major tourist destination. (Not likely, I suppose, but more improbable things have happened recently.)

At the time, the only places from which you could fly to Pyongyang were Beijing, Moscow and Tirana. We got to Pyongyang via Beijing. There were so many more people travelling to Pyongyang than usual that Air Koryo, the North Korean airline was flying a shuttle service from Beijing to Pyongyang, which meant that all time-tables had been abolished. Whenever a plane arrived from Pyongyang, the people nearest the front of the huge huddle managed to leave.

The first thing I noticed on boarding the plane was that the stewardesses were stowing real crockery on the shelves in the kitchen area. This was very impressive. The second thing which became apparent was that some of the seats were stuck in a reclining position and several of the tray tables could not be folded back in place. The plane, however, promptly began to race down the runway and as it took off two loud sounds were heard. One was the crockery falling to the floor, and the second was a blast of muscular martial music streaming out of the loudspeakers. The music never let up, all the way to Pyongyang.

Read more…

Eastern Wisdom vs. Tennis

tennis_03When the British assembled their empire, they took their games and sports and moustaches with them, even to the hottest places. Some people were bemused, as in this anecdote, relayed by Jan Morris in her book Hong Kong, when discussing the early days of the colony.

An old tale tells of the Chinese gentleman who, watching a pair of Englishmen sweating away at a game of tennis, inquired why they did not hire coolies to play it for them.

We do not know whether they took heed of this pearl of Eastern wisdom, but it would certainly have been more reasonable to sit calmly in the shade or else, if they were really incapable of sitting still, to equip themselves with something like the following admirable device:

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Perhaps this is Dr. Watson trying out the contraption. After all, he was just down the road at 221B Baker St.

The Horse-Action Saddle was also available for ladies:

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It is interesting to note that the saddle does not seem to have the same effect on gentlemen and ladies. Only in the case of ladies is it noted that the saddle provides a “complete cure for … HYSTERIA…”.

Also interesting, at the top of the ad, is the plug from the Countess of Aberdeen (who was never taught the difference between direct and reported speech):

Her Excellency the Countess of Aberdeen writes: “That the saddle has given her complete satisfaction.”

Arise! An imaginary film scene

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Recently, I came across an article published in 1945 in the New Yorker entitled “Return to Place Pigalle”, where Joseph Wechsberg, originally from Czechoslovakia,  describes returning to Paris as a US soldier and meeting the musicians he used to play with there in the 1920’s.
The musicians describe the experience of playing in  Nazi-occupied Paris and leds to a discussion  of a violinist-cellist called Maurice, who is remembered for the following:

After 2 A.M., by which hour many of the German customers, not having been brought up on Pommery and Veuve Clicquot, were under the tables, Maurice’s favorite sport was to get up and announce in German that the orchestra would play “Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles.” (Maurice had been born in Alsace and spoke German fluently.) The plastered Germans would crawl out from under the tables, make an effort to stand at attention and fall flat on their faces. The French customers would start laughing, and in the end an S.S. man who wasn’t quite drunk would call in the nearest patrol and have the drunken Germans arrested.

I think that this would make a marvellous sequence in a film. In fact, it would be even better if the gag was repeated two or three times in a row. Of course, there is no need for the soldiers to be Germans. I think that Russians would be a good alternative, simply on musical grounds, since the Russian anthem has a swaying quality to it which would well accompany the efforts of drunk soldiers to stand up straight. Even better perhaps, Chinese soldiers, once you know that the Chinese national anthem begins with the call qǐ lái (起来) –  Arise! or Stand Up!

 

Looking at the water

Point your camera at a reflection in a canal or a river, flip the image around and see what a liquid world looks like. Trees try to float up into the sky, lamp-posts become Chaplinesque, railings grope around corners, fish pass by windows and houses breathe in and out.

Around and up and also down

Some time ago I posted an article on my liking for random walks, in which I outlined an insanely complicated method to get to places you weren’t planning to see. Recently I found another way to go to randomly explore the world, without getting up from my chair.

A few days ago, as I was preparing to leave for Prague, I tried to find some information on the city’s railway station. I can’t remember why, I have been to so many places (at least virtually) since then. I happened on a page with a 360 degree spherical picture of Fantova kavárna or Fanta’s Café, originally the main hall of the station as it was built in 1871 by the architect Josef Fanta. The picture was on a website called 360cities.net which, I have discovered, is a wonderful tool for random travelling.

I soon ended up in other places in Prague, my favourites I think being the Bethlehem Chapel, a medieval crane and the wonderful Strahov library, where the picture is so detailed that I am quite confident that I will one day spot a bookworm about to take a bite out of one of the ancient volumes.  Read more…

Signs for Pause

I read a lot and when I don’t have a book, I find it hard to avoid reading any of the signs and labels in my vicinity. Sometimes I come across one which makes me pause.

Here are a few examples

Dementia Bar


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Read more…