Category Archives: Places – Real and Imaginary

Africa, slowly, from the sky

The April 19 issue of the New Yorker had an interesting article by Lauren Collins on the American photographer George Steinmetz. His speciality is taking pictures from a motorised paraglider which  he flies low and slow (27 mph is the one speed it has). With it he can get the angles which he wants, whereas “trying to get a pilot to put a plane exactly where you want it is like trying to get someone else to scratch an itch”.

The picture above is of a salt-making site at the village of Teguidda-n-Tessoumt in northern Niger. Read more…

The many ways a minaret might be

Minarets fabricT(This is a post from 2010).
The other day I came across an article in Le Monde about the political situation in Vorarlberg, a region of Austria. Together with Carinthia, Vorarlberg has adopted a law to prevent buildings being erected which aren’t “ortsüblich“. The best way I have found to render ortsüblich in this case is “typically local”.

And the aim of the provision was to make sure no one thought of puncturing the local skies with a minaret. So far, this seems to be just another of the many depressing stories you hear about nowadays. But now comes the interesting part: in the Vorarlberg town of Hohenems there is a small Jewish museum. The director is  called Hanno Loewy and in response to the provision he organised not one but two conferences  on “How to build a typically local minaret” (September 2008 and June 2009).
Read more…

The Whole Country Dances – The North Korean Music Scene

KJuvMusic(This article was first posted in February 2008. I think it is time for people to be reminded of North Korean music. doesn’t seem to provide songs any longer, which is a great pity, but there is a good selection here. In particular, I would recommend Heroic Workers’ Factory, which has an English translation. It is a song you can try out at work yourselves. See if increases your output.) 

I was leafing through the Rough Guide to World Music one day, looking up countries I had visited in order to find out which melodies I had missed and remembered (but how could one forget) that one of the countries I have been to is North Korea. The book has a box on the musical scene in North Korea with a list of titles including the following:


Song of Bean Paste
My Country Full of Happiness
We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly
Our Life Is Precisely A Song
Song of Snipers
The Joy Of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst The Song of Mechanisation
Farming In This Year Is Great Bumper Crop
My Country Is Nice To Live In
Music Of Mass Rhythmic Gymnastics
I Like Both Morning And Evening
The Shoes My Brother Gave Me Fit Me Tight
The World Envies Us

These titles brought back many of the feelings one had while one was in North Korea. I was going to leave it at that, but I wanted to find a clearer picture for the cover of  Korean Juvenile Music (reproduced above) and in this search I stumbled across an excellent site which proclaimed

Herzlich willkommen auf

and which has a substantial collection of North Korean CD’s for sale. You can even listen to some of the tracks in their Pochonboentirety. My favourite is My Country is the Best. We’ve Taken Grenades in Our Hands (also in the Korean Juvenile Music series) is excellent too, Glory to General Kim Jong Il is obviously excellent as well even though the Bavarian influence is a little strong for my tastes. But the real discovery was the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble who play with unequalled confidence and flair. If I had a record company I would not hesitate to sign them up. I think there is definitely a niche market which would go overboard for them. In fact, I have a feeling they would be particularly good at the Superbowl – the style is very similar. I watched a number of their videos, I think I counted eight keyboard players but there may be more. Here is an example of their multi-layered approach:

Someone has implied that the Mansudae Art Troupe are even better, but I can’t say I have been convinced, even though that is only on the strength of one track.

As I said, Herzlich willkommen auf allows you to listen to a number of tracks in their entirety. It is a pity therefore that some of the more intriguing titles have no audio clip associated with them. I would really have liked to have heard O Persimmon Trees at a Coastal Guard Outpost. In any case, I have decided to put down here some of what I feel are the most memorable titles. I have found that arranging them in pairs conjures up a pretty accurate picture of the atmosphere one perceives in North Korea.

We Shall Live Forever to Defend Our Seas
Taehongdan Potato Good for Longevity

Oh, What Is a Party Member?
He Doesn’t Know Maybe

Fresh and Green Edible Aster on Mt. Ryongak
It Will Radiate with the General Sunshine

I Am a Blossom of the Fatherly General
I Also Raise Chickens.

We Are Honourable Infantrymen
Coming to Remove Weeds from the Sky

We’ve Taken Grenades in Our Hands
What Has Happened to the Thaebaeksan Hospital?

Let’s Sing of Paternal Affection
My Youngest Daughter, Pok Sun, Became a AA-machine gunner

Sea of Potato Blossoms in Taehongdan
Pleasant Snack Time

Nightingales Sing in Our Factory Compound
Song of Blood Transfusion

My Mind Remains Unchanged
I Like Rifle

and to end a couple of threesomes

Triple Rainbows
I Always See Them
Deep in Thought, the Nurse Ponders

Our Satellite Sings
Song of Automation Full of Happiness
The Whole Country Dances

Yes, now I remember

The Observation Car

Somewhere along the line

(Listen to the poem here)

The train for Kandy leaves Colombo Fort
just as the morning heat begins to swell.
Inside the observation car the rusty fans
begin to turn and tilt. We watch the platform
where we stood for one, two quarters
of an hour slide off our moving stage.
And now we’re ready for the world
to come by and perform for us.
Read more…

Go-back-to-sleep Road

Some nights I lie awake, thinking how nice it would be to assemble a city which incorporates all my favourite streets and squares. Some of them because they offer an unexpected glimpse of a river at a sharp bend, others because of their beautiful buildings, some because of their fascinating shops or magnificent trees and still others because of the people who live on them, which is a way to populate this city with my favourite people together with number of individuals I’ve only glimpsed but who have made an impression on me, such as:

  • the cross-eyed Sikh taxi-driver in Delhi
  • the boy in Cairo who called every heap of rubbish an “Egyptian garden”
  • the man sitting on the pavement in Dakar who, when asked what time the shop behind him opened, said “We’re in Africa, relax.”
  • the lady in Kampala who, when asked if she sold razor blades, answered, “No, but we have nail clippers”.
  • the bus driver in Mexico who told me, “My brother is an engineer, my sister is a lawyer, but whenever I see a bus go by I want to drive it.”
  • the man in Ireland who went by pushing a car and shouted, “I’ll give you a lift when I get to the petrol station.”
  • the man I saw at 7 in the morning a couple of weeks ago walking down the street outside my house with two parrots on his shoulders.

After a while of sticking thoroughfares more or less haphazardly together to make my city, the whole thing starts on taking on the shape of one of those Escher pictures where you keep on going down steps but never reach the next floor or you find that you reach the sea by walking uphill. As you move around your burgeoning city you also realise how difficult it is to visualise going down a street and then turning round and coming back the other way. Try it.

escher print gallery

Other people around the world, or at least in adjacent time zones, are also lying awake thinking things. In some countries, I believe, some mayors toss and turn trying to devise ways to make life more uncomfortable for people who look slightly different than they do. Sometimes they sit up with a start and exclaim, “Yes, let’s name a street after So-and-so.” So-and-so St. wouldn’t be bad, but sometimes the names they come up with seem to have been chosen to commemorate particularly corrupt or vicious people.

When I get wind of these suggestions I lie awake thinking that I would prefer to have a landfill established at the end of the street rather than get saddled with one of these names. Even worse are names of battles. I think that if you really have to name a street after a battle you should make sure it is one of those things that run like scar tissue through our industrial wastelands. Streets which are full of broken glass and dead rodents.

But even if they are names of people you admire or like, they still don’t work. Some things have to grow like plants. Cities, streets and street names too should develop as naturally as possible. The great thing about cities is that they are full of a million minds. What could be more lifeless than those singly-minded artificially planned cities entrusted to one brain with streets called Progress Road, Democracy Avenue, Nationbuilding Boulevard ? (By the way, if you insist on Progress Road, do make sure it is a one-way street).

You can put up as many nameplates as you want to call a street Beethoven Street but you are never going to get a street to feel like him, not deliberately anyway. And dedicating a noisy, highly trafficked street to Beethoven is just as insulting to him as purloining his Hymn to Joy and making a bad anthem out of it.

Across the river from where I live in Rome is a square called Campo dei Fiori, which means Field of Flowers, because there used to be meadows there. Now there is no grass but instead exorbitantly priced vegetables on stalls. And a statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake there in 1600 for thinking too much. Surely nobody could be more deserving of having a square, this square, named after him, especially since he has the added indignity of standing through the night with his plinth full of the empty bottles of beer and wine which people dump at his feet as well as covered by the stranded luminescent flying disks which land on him just a few seconds after they have been purchased from the hawkers in the square. But, despite all this, Piazza Giordano Bruno would also be a lifeless name.

In his lovely poem Evocation of Recife, Manoel Bandeira wrote:

the streets of my
childhood had such lovely names!
Sun Street
(I hate to think
they may have renamed it after some So-and-So)
Behind the house
Nostalgia Street…
…where we used to sneak a smoke
On the
other side the Dawn Street wharf…
…where we used to fish in

I would love to have Nostalgia Street in my city, but I can’t because I have never seen it. On the other hand, there are many which are there on account of their names. Near one of my six harbours is Rua da Cozinha Economica (Cheap Cooking
Road – from Lisbon). Also from Lisbon is Praza da Alegria (Joy Square) where I chose a hotel once simply because it sounded like a positive place to stay. Up a steep hill, goes via Scosciacavalli (Horses-do-the-splits Rd.) from Ancona. And lost in a maze of other lanes is via Senza Nome (No Name Street) from Bologna. When you know the history  of the latter road, it gets more interesting. Apparently Senza Nome comes from a deformation of Sozzo Nome (Dirty Name), which is what it was called in the 19th Century. And it was called Dirty Name, because earlier in history, when the tight alley had been full of prostitutes soliciting it was called via Sfregatette (Scrapetits Rd.).

Scrapetits would, I find, be a good address for a London football club – like White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge. Perhaps we could get another Russian robber-baron to start up a new club and bribe someone to change the name of a street or even a square to Scrapetits. Maybe one of the many London places commemorating a battle. Perhaps Trafalgar? Nelson might even prefer it.

Anyway, I have a suggestion for you mayors next time you’re fantasizing about renaming a street. Try Go-back-to-sleep Road.

San Serrife Day

6a00e5502c099d883400e5519eb65e8834-800wiSan Serriffe (main islands Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse) is a country  people first noticed on 1 April 1977 after the Guardian published a seven-page supplement on it complete with advertising. Philip Davies, the person who had the original idea, apparently said, “The Financial Times was always doing special reports on little countries I’d never heard of. I was thinking about April Fool’s Day 1977 and I thought: why don’t we just make a country up?” One special feature about the islands of Sans Serriffe is that they are migratory, therefore the map on the left no longer gives their exact position.

Other 1 April facts and reports  are listed, described and documented in great detail at  Museum of Hoaxes, including the masterful Swiss Spaghetti Harvest, Alabama changing the value of Pi to 3.0, the left-handed  hamburger,  the  temporary closure of the Internet for Spring Cleaning and  the distribution of  powdered  water in Hong Kong.

Put a Sheep in Your Pocket – Proverbs in Istanbul

Once in Istanbul I was eating at a cheap restaurant near Sultan Ahmet- the Blue Mosque. It was one of those times when a bomb had gone off or somebody had invaded someone somewhere, and despite this being a tourist area there was nobody but me in the place. And then a lady walked in. For some reason I decided she must be Korean. She had a little girl, just about to experiment with walking, but mostly an experienced and very fast crawler. And as soon as the lady tucked into her meal, the little girl was off, under the next table, round the corner, past me and straight for the door on the street. On the threshold one of the waiters whisked her up and carried her back to her mother, who paid her no attention whatsoever. Five minutes later the girl was off again, and again a waiter carried her back. On the girl’s fourth outing it was the cook who came out from the kitchen and grabbed her. He held her in his arms, put his chef’s hat on her head and stood in the window with her and  they both waved at passers-by until the mother had finished eating.

The city was full of little poetic gestures like that.  Every now and then someone would give you their time or something they owned in a completely unexpected way. I got really used to it, so that one day when I was trying get back to the city from half-way down the Bosporus, I got on a dolmuş bus and as I stood stooped in the small vehicle just behind the driver, I was not really surprised to find that people were handing me money. It took me a few seconds  to realize that these were all fares I had to hand over to the driver and that I would then have to sort out all the change.

The only people who ever bothered me were the carpet sellers who would follow you for what seemed forever, turning everything you said into another question.  No thank you, would be answered by Why not? and Because I don’t want a carpet by Why don’t you want one? and so on and so on. And if you said nothing it was even worse because they would then go through every nationality in the world in many different languages. Français ? Italiano ? English ? Deutsch ? I realised that there were not many potential customers but I didn’t see why I had to subsidise the whole trade on my own. At one point, I thought of buying a small carpet and carrying around with me all the time, so that I could show them I already had one, but obviously that wouldn’t have worked. They would have told me I needed a bigger one.

Then, one day, I chanced upon the Sahaflar Çarşısı the outdoor
book market near the Grand Bazaar and there I found a big red book entitled A Dictionary of Turkish Proverbs.
I learnt an easy one at the front of the book – At var, meydan yok – We have a horse but no parade ground. And the next time I was propositioned by a carpeteer, just to change the script a little, instead of saying No, thank you,I said At var, meydan yok. And then something  strange happened – words failed him and he fell behind me – for about five seconds- then he caught up- but I had bewildered him for a bit. So I learnt some more proverbs, I thought that if I could master eight or nine I might be able to put enough distance between us to escape. And sometimes it worked. Lack of logic was not something they were prepared for.

Fish are in frying pan, hares in the plain,

If you cannot find a great man to consult, find a great rock,

When a snake  has a headache it comes out into the middle of  the road.

If you don’t have a mirror, look  at your neighbour

If you want yoghurt in winter, carry a sheep in your pocket.

I had no idea what they meant. I actually tried carrying a sheep in my pocket one winter, but nothing happened – well, no yoghurt at least. But I did manage to get away more often and in a much better mood, go down to the Spice market and the fish market and the lane where they sold wonderful old knives and kitchenware and as in the famous poem, listen to Istanbul, or move on to the waterfront and do what I most enjoy there- ride the boats – and this poem is about the feeling I have when I am on one of them.

Mexican Bus Ride


Mexican bus ride was the US title given to a Buñuel film called Subida al cielo (Ascent to Heaven). What follows is about a Mexican bus ride of my own and has nothing to do with the film, I just liked the poster and it is always worthwhile mentioning Buñuel, but you can see an
excerpt here.

My ride started in Cuautla, in the state of Morelos. Its main claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Zapata, and it still has his train, which it takes out for a walkabout every now and then.

A Mexican friend of mine once told me that when she was a kid her mother had taken her on a week’s vacation to Cuautla and they had gone to the cinema every night and every night had seen the same film. That is the kind of thing you do in Cuautla.

I had the following interesting experiences in Cuautla, – buying a voltage convertor, being offered live chumiles to eat (I declined), hearing a train whistle and thinking I was going to see Zapata’s train and finding out it was a toy train full of kids,


Voltage Converter




zapata train

Zapata’s train

toy train kid

Not Zapata’s train

encountering a butterfly (more -though not much more- about this here), going to a shoe-shop and watching a friend buy sandals, looking for a beer and getting directed to a saloon-style cantina for real men only, managing to get out of the cantina two hours later, being asked to hold a baby, but most of all catching a bus.  (I must admit that I couldn’t find a picture of a chumil and the insect shown is actually a tumil – but I can’t tell the difference, it might just be an alternative spelling.)

I can’t remember whether the bus (to Puebla) was the Estrella Roja or the Oro line. We climbed up through the mountains on a bumpy, narrow road. Somewhere which looked like nowhere a boy got on and started selling lollipops. “Paletas, paletas,”
he went up and down the aisle. He must have sold one, because I heard him say “Gracias”. Then he sat down next to the driver and looked with a gentle gaze at the road. The driver caught my attention because he talked to the kid, who couldn’t have been more than twelve, respectfully as one would talk to an adult. After about twenty minutes the boy got off. Another place which looked like nowhere. He crossed the road and stood and waited for a bus going the other way, shuttling I supposed all day from one nowhere to another.

“Not much profit for that much time”, I said to the driver.

“He’s doing OK”, the driver said. And he asked me where I was from. When I told him I lived in Rome, he said “Estàs muy lejos de tu rancho.”- (“You’re very far from home”- although I liked the suggestion that I might actually have a ranch). And then he started talking about things. He had been all over Mexico, all over Central America, and through the United States, driving buses. He collected a stone from every place he went to. “Which is the place you would most wish to have a stone from ?” I asked him. “Palos”, he said, “where Columbus set sail.”

He told me “My brother is an engineer, my sister is a lawyer, but when I see a bus go by, I want to drive it.”  He was reading a poet I hadn’t heard of. Later I discovered that he was very famous in Mexico, though much less outside Mexico: his name was Jaime Sabines, and he quoted some things to me. Here is a poem about the moon by Sabines.

When we drew close to Puebla, he pointed out three volcanoes, la Malinche, Iztaccíhuatl, and the very lively Popocatépetl. I thought that, considering it was boiling away, Popocatépetl had a useful rhyme with kettle. And then as we drove into the elegant city and down to the bus terminal, he said, “Gringos don’t know how to whistle” and this is more or less what he said by way of explanation.