An Afternoon in Meknès

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Lunchtime was over in the Place el-Hedim. There was one man left at the clusters of tables outside the cafes, smoking and sipping mint tea. A black-and-white cat, with no food to beg now, bent in a yoga stretch under a chair and scrubbed at its fur with its tongue. Families promenaded, hand-in-hand, line-abreast. Redoubtable ladies in pink djellabas and hijabs sceptically fingered tagines at the traders’ stalls.

In the souks beyond the square, Berber rugs hung from the walls. Babouche slippers and hand-painted plates were arranged in colour-coordinated rows. There were piles of olives and mounds of spices, and dates and figs buzzed by wasps.

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Meknès is the lesser known of Morocco’s royal cities, by which I mean I had never heard of it until I planned this trip. You could spend all day in the Medina without seeing a traveller from anywhere in the OECD, and you are hardly ever hassled. There is no need for the benign protection racket of the official guides of cities like Fèz, who are not so much there to show you round as to stop you from being constantly, constantly bothered by the men who block your way, get in your face and angrily demand to sell you some unwanted assistance.

The old cigarette seller sat on a ledge with his friend in a clean, white kufi cap and an ill-fitting jacket over a sweatshirt in the heat of the mid-afternoon. The cigarettes were an American brand with a health warning in French and the pack of 200 was unopened. People strolled by in woollen djellabas with the hoods up, and sweatshirts with the hoods down, and white thobes and prayer caps, and denim jackets and baseball caps, and none of them bought cigarettes. Scooters snarled past. Grands taxis pulled up and disgorged their passengers across the road near the iconic gateway.

Bab el-Mansour boasts in its Arabic inscription, “I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I am like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front”. All of that might be true, but the gate leads to nothing but an art exhibition. There is a door nearby into the old city.

Moullay Ismail made Meknès his capital on becoming sultan in 1672. He was a son of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty which runs right through to the present-day king and his rule overlapped with Louis XIV of France and William and Mary in England.

Horse-drawn calèches stand ready to clop you round the walled city and in and out of keyhole gateways, stopping at the roofless remains of Ismail’s cavernous stables which once housed 12,000 horses but are home now to a few retiring tabbies, and the mausoleum of the sultan himself which is an opulence of zellij tiles, archways, pillars, fountains, carved stucco and worked metal.

In the late afternoon in the ville nouvelle built by the French, where the buildings are blocky and functional and the pavements are broken and the shops sell stationery and sportswear, fruit sellers congregated on the corner of the street and bantered with customers. There was a man with a pushcart filled with leafy oranges, two more with bananas in boxes which warned in Spanish that they needed to be handled with care and a father and son team selling grapes.

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An imam, spotless in head-to-toe white, stood out from a crowd in tracksuit bottoms and scuffed leather jackets. A man with dreadlocks and the backs of his shoes turned down shuffled to the bottom of Rue d’ Accra and back every half hour or so. There was some unpleasantness on Rue Antsirabe between cackling teenagers and a loudly protesting old man. They had stolen something he had leant outside a shop and run down the street with it. But a woman burst out of another shop and made them take it back.

The scene faded to darkness. The crowds thinned. The fruit sellers packed up and melted away. The shutters came down on the shops. The call to prayer floated across the roofs from the Mosque.

I had only planned to stay in Meknès as a base for Volubis and Moullay Idriss, a stopping off point between Fèz and Rabat as I travelled down the country, but it had been well worth a visit in its own right.

© Richard Senior 2019

Bab el-Mansour image: Chris Martin from Decatur, Georgia, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Pingyao and its People

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He rattled through the streets on a motor tricycle which was as rusted as he was wrinkled with age. Half a century ago, the whole town would have dressed as the old man still did, in the rough tunic and peaked cap of his better years.

The couple with the donkey cart were silver-haired too. Though they wore modern clothes, their cart might have been already ancient when they were born. It had been built, without thought for aesthetics, from timbers which would have served for a seagoing junk.

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Pingyao is more or less bang in the centre of Shanxi Province. It is four hours from Beijing by bullet train, but the China of bullet trains seems a fantasy of science fiction from inside its city walls.

Virtually all of the 4000 buildings on more than 100 streets and lanes across the square mile within the walls were built in the Ming and Qing dynasties, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some are older than that, and the walls themselves have been standing since 1370. There are deep grooves worn by cartwheels in the roads leading up to the gateways.

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The dust of centuries clings to the bricks of the shops and courtyard houses. Their doors are gouged and dented from the mishaps of generations long passed. Lanterns hang underneath the swooping eaves. Silks, ceramics, antiques and decorative bottles of Shanxi black vinegar are arranged in doorways and tables outside the shops.

A mechanic has dragged a moped out of his workshop into the road. He crouches over it, surrounded by spanners, in an unwisely white vest. The unstoppable tide of domestic tourists eddies around him. Grim-faced ladies cycle against the flow on bikes which creak and crunch and squeal with every stroke of the pedals.

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The pagoda-like Market Tower broods over the main drag, which in other cities might qualify as a side street. A road sweeper leans against the wall with studied nonchalance. The reason why is working a street food stall, and he is managing to make her laugh.

Incense wafts from the splendid temples, Taoist and Confucian. There is a small Catholic church in one corner, as well. Marinated pork skewers are rotated over a grill by a contraption which looks as if it is driven by bicycle chains. A clunking museum piece of a machine laboriously produces confectionery. Hole in the wall restaurants serve Pingyao beef and Shanxi noodles, and they are a bustle of scraped chairs and excitable voices in the middle of the day.

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The city was an important banking centre in the nineteenth century, although it is hard to credit now. Rishenchang Exchange House Museum is one of several courtyard houses open to the public, either as themed museums or preserved family homes.

It was originally built in the eighteenth century for the Xiyuecheng Dye Company. To spare the worry of carting sacks of silver coins across China, the company began issuing drafts which could be cashed at any of its branches. The idea took off among merchants and became so popular that the owners of the company got out of the dyeing business and became bankers instead. Other draft banks set up in competition, in Pingyao and across the province.

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Away from the shops, the restaurants, the temples and the courtyard houses turned into museums, there are quieter corners which the tourists mostly avoid where the shops sell mundane staples and old posters are peeling from the walls.

The dust is more thickly encrusted in these parts. The lanterns are faded and ragged. Chickens scratch around junk in the courtyards. Chillies are laid out in baskets to dry in the sun. Washing is stretched out on lines across the fronts of buildings. The fruit seller has parked his three-wheeler in the shade of the parasol over his stall and is sound asleep in the back. At first horrified glance, he looks like a cadaver.

In the evening when the lanterns are lit outside the shops and the sky fades to a deep blue streaked with pink, then a deeper blue and eventually black and the air is still warm and a girl chars water spinach on a grill on the cobbled pavement with the paifan gate silhouetted behind her and a neon sign for a practitioner of traditional medicine glows in the background, the tourists thin out and the city relaxes and slows to a pace altogether more fitting.

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It is a surprise to find the road sweeper still working. But he is perhaps catching up with the work which he should have done earlier that afternoon when he was chatting to the woman with the street food stall.

© Richard Senior 2019

Eating in Hiroshima

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It was lunchtime and the okonomiyaki shop was bustling but I got a seat at the counter. Everyone wants to eat okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki, literally ‘what you want, grilled,’ originated in Osaka and is sold all over Japan nowadays; but Hiroshima has a version of its own, known to some as hiroshimayaki.

The chef smeared a circle of batter on the plancha grill in front of me, sprinkled on katsuobushi (flakes of dried tuna), then added several handfuls of chiffonaded* cabbage. To that, he added bean sprouts, sliced squid and a couple of thin slices of belly pork, followed by another drizzle of batter.

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He arranged yakisoba noodles on the plancha into the size and shape of the hiroshimayaki, then deftly flipped it onto them with a pair of spatulas. The towering pile of cabbage cooked down to something more manageable and he pressed it down some more with his spatula.

He cracked an egg onto the plancha, smeared it into a circle as he had the batter then flipped the hiroshimayaki again onto the cooking egg.  He flipped it a third time when the egg was cooked, drizzled mayonnaise and an unctuous, Worcestershire-sauce-based dressing over the top, buried it in sliced spring onions and sat an egg yolk on the top.

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It was very good, if very bad for me. I was thankful that I had mostly eaten fish, rice and lightly-cooked vegetables the rest of the time I had been in Japan. I paid, waddled out and caught the tram, where an old lady stood with a big cardboard box roped to her back and walloped the same three people with it every time she turned round to look out the window, but they were too polite to say anything.

Somewhere around 70% of Japanese oysters are produced in Hiroshima and they appear on menus all over the city. I had them twice in one day, five for lunch deep-fried in panko crumbs and served with a miso soup, a bowl of rice and a delicate salad made with sliced cucumber and leaves, then another five in the evening braised in a broth with udon noodles and sliced spring onions.

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I never got to try Hiroshima-style tsukemen, made with cold ramen noodles and served with a dipping sauce made with soy, red chillies and sesame seeds, but I had the same sauce with gyoza dumplings.

I ate in a traditional restaurant, where each diner, or group, had a room of their own and a sliding door portioned them off from the other diners. There was a low table and cushions to kneel on and a button to press when you were ready to order, which presumably sounded a buzzer at the bar and, at any rate, had the waitress knocking on the sliding door within seconds.

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I ate well in Hiroshima, but then I ate well all over Japan and only had one disappointing meal – in an izakaya in suburban Osaka – in the month I was there.

© Richard Senior 2016

*thinly sliced

In St Petersburg with Dostoevsky

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“On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as if in hesitation, towards K. Bridge.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

The restless Dostoevsky moved about St Petersburg, coming and going, moving apartment, never staying anywhere more than three years, after he was sent there, against his will, at 16, to the military engineering school in the Mikhailovsky Palace (the Engineer’s Castle), now an art gallery and minor stop on the tourist trail.

He managed an unhappy year as a military engineer with one of the few steady incomes of his life, then gave it up to write and, along the way, got involved in radical politics, which in turn got him thrown into the political prison in the St Peter and Paul Fortress which dominates the right bank of the Neva. It was a sort of Oxford and Cambridge of Tsarist Russia; alumni included Leon Trotsky, Josip Tito, Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. The old prison is open to the public, now, a dank and oppressive curiosity among the gilded spires and domes and crenelated walls of the fortress.

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From there, Dostoevsky was marched to what is now Pionerskeya Place and put in front of a firing squad, but it was an early example of what we would now call a mock execution; his real sentence was eight years – commuted to four – in Siberia.

He drifted back to St Petersburg, moving from apartment to apartment, pursued by angry creditors. Mostly he lived in the claustrophobic streets around Sennaya Ploshchad (Hay Square), where he set Crime and Punishment. It was the cheapest and grimmest corner of St Petersburg, then: half a dozen blocks west but a world away from the splendour of Nevsky Prospekt:

“The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks…. The insufferable stench from the pot-houses, which are particularly numerous in that part of the town….

Owing to the proximity of the Hay Market, the number of establishments of bad character, the preponderance of the trading and working class population crowded in these streets and alleys in the heart of Petersburg, types so various were to be seen in the streets that no figure, however queer, would have caused surprise.”

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The Hay Market is long gone and the neighbourhood has been regenerated several times; but many of the old buildings remain, and the old atmosphere clings to them like soot from steam locomotives. It is still a lot shabbier than the avenues and squares of the main tourist trail with its murky courtyards, flaking paint, rusted railings and crumpled Ladas.

You emerge from the Metro on Sennaya Ploshchad among grimy kiosks where daytime drinkers sprawl on benches worked into the shape of carriage wheels in allusion to the vanished market. Across the road is the porticoed guardhouse in which Dostoevsky was locked up for two days in 1874 for breaching censorship laws.

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There are still dive bars on Brinko Lane, where Raskolnikov – the main protagonist of Crime and Punishment – met the drunken civil servant, Marmeladov, and each of them looks like the sort of place in which a Marmeladov or a Raskolnikov might drink.

Brinko Lane tips out on Sadovaya Street and the first right takes you over the Kukushkin Bridge and onto Stoliarny Lane, reversing Raskolnikov’s route in the novel’s opening lines:

“…a young mancame out of the garret in which he lodged in S[toliarny] Place and walked slowly, as if in hesitation, towards K[ukushikin] Bridge.”

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There is a bronze relief of Dostoevsky – looking his usual cheerful self – on the corner of No 5, where Raskolnikov rented his:

“tiny cupboard of a room about six paces in length…with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the walls, and… so low-pitched that a man of more than average height was ill at ease in it and felt every moment that he would knock his head against the ceiling.”

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Carry on down Stoliarny Lane to the next cross street, ul. Kaznachieskaja, turn left and at number 7 is the building in which Dostoevsky was living when he wrote Crime and Punishment; he had lived before at numbers 1 and 9.

Raskolnikov “walked along quietly and sedately, without hurry, to avoid awakening suspicion” on a roundabout way to the home of the old pawnbroker he planned to murder and rob. You can follow him to the end of Stoliarny Street, over the Kukushkin Bridge, onto Sadovaya Street, past the Yusopov Gardens and along Rimskogo-Korsakova until you get to Griboyedov Canal. “And by now he was near; here was the house, here was the gate.” The pawnbroker lived at Griboyedov Embankment, 104:

“a huge house which on one side looked on to the canal, and on the other into the street…let out in tiny tenements and…inhabited by working people of all kinds- tailors, locksmiths, cooks, Germans of sorts, girls picking up a living as best they could, petty clerks, &c.”

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On your way, you pass another of Dostoevsky’s twenty addresses in St Petersburg, Rimskogo-Korsakova, 3 – between the Ambassador Hotel and Azaliya restaurant, a few doors from a whimsical monument to The Nose from Gogol’s short story.

It is quicker and pleasanter to walk back along Griboyedov Canal. Near the top of Voznesensky Avenue, the last street before Stoliarny Lane, is another of the apartment blocks – at No 29 – in which Dostoevsky lived. Over the bridge, at the next corner is Griboyedov Embankment, 73, then an “old green house of three storeys,” now a yellow house of four storeys, where Marmeladov’s daughter, Sonia, had her apartment:

“…a large but exceedingly low-pitched room… a very irregular quadrangle and this gave it a grotesque appearance. A wall with three windows looking out on to the canal ran aslant so that one corner formed a very acute angle, and it was difficult to see in it without very strong light. The other corner was disproportionately obtuse….”

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Over to the west, the powder blue, star-dotted dome of the Trinity Cathedral rises above the rooftops. Dostoevsky – then a 45-year-old widower – was married there in 1867 to his 19-year-old stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna.

His clumsy proposal started with an ‘idea for a novel’ in which a painter married his much younger assistant and moved on to the hypothetical  question,“Imagine I am the painter, I confessed to you and asked you to be my wife. What would you answer?” Her answer – also couched as hypothetical – was “I love you and I will love you forever”.

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It is a good job she did. It is usually drink with writers, but with Dostoevsky it was gambling. Despite the royalties from Crime and Punishment, which was published the year before, Anna had to sell some of her things to help pay his gambling debts, and the couple eventually had to leave Russia in a hurry and spend the next four years travelling around Western Europe, where Dostoevsky continued to lose much of what he earned, often more.

They went back to St Petersburg in 1871, at first to the same neighbourhood near the Hay Market, then a series of apartments south of the Fontanka River, and finally further east to Kuznechny Lane, 5, where Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov.

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He died in 1881, at the age of 59, and was buried with Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in the Tikhvinskoe Cemetery two stops on the Metro to the east. Anna, though still only 35, never remarried.

The house in which he spent his last three years is now the Dostoevsky Museum; his apartment has been carefully recreated. The first cross street to the east and the nearby Metro station have been named in his honour. And, just a few blocks to the west is the square in which, as a young man tentatively starting to make his name as a writer, he stood before a firing squad.

© Richard Senior 2016

Tanning in the Sun in Fez

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The tanners who work in the dye pits at the heart of the Fez Medina spend their days waist-deep in cow piss and pigeon shit.

It is even worse than commuting on the Thameslink.

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Balak! Balak!” the old man shouted in warning and the people pressed themselves to the sides of the derb* and the donkey train clattered through, piled high with animal hides, on its way to the tanneries.

The Medina dates back to the eighth century and the greater part of what is there now was built around the time of Chaucer, Petrarch and the Black Death, two hundred years before Shakespeare, four hundred before the Declaration of Independence.

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The old walls encircle an area of three square kilometres, a medieval tangle of going on ten thousand alleys and lanes – free of all vehicles, unless you count donkeys – winding, intersecting, curling uphill, sloping down, lurching round dog-leg corners, through keyhole-shaped archways, opening out into squares with fountains decorated with zillij tiles and bustling, clamorous souks, and closing in on claustrophobic passages with crumbling walls and battered doors and petering out into silent cul-de-sacs.

More donkeys clopped over the cobbles, laden with gas bottles and bags of cement. Men in woollen djebellas rested in doorways; women in bright hijabs picked through the vegetables at the grocer’s stall. A sheep’s head was on display at the butcher’s.

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A man worked leather in a tiny workshop; others tink-tinked with hammers and chisels on blocks of stones, and pounded copper with mallets; handlooms ker-chunked in the carpet shops; a baker fed discs of khobz bread into an oven, another carried a tray of them on his head through the derbs. The muezzin called the faithful to prayer.

Outside the walls, in the unseen ville nouvelle, there are as many smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, ATM’s, supermarkets, takeaway franchises and chain hotels as there are in any modern city; but the Medina has barely changed since the Middle Ages.

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The tanneries, hidden behind the facades of the leather souk, seem centuries away from the Industrial Revolution, let alone the Digital Age. The tanners who work them are organised into a craft guild, as tanners across Europe once were, in feudal times. Fathers bequeath their jobs to their sons; some families claim to have been in the dye pits for thirty-odd generations.

They work in a tightly-packed honeycomb of vats built of stone and lined with tiles. The grottiest are filled with water, quicklime and cow urine and are so foul that the tanners – who mostly work in shorts and bare feet – wear rubber boots and waterproofs around them. The hides are soaked for two or three days to soften the hair and flesh, then hauled out, scraped and stretched over balconies to dry in the sun.

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Once dry, they are dunked in vats of diluted pigeon poo, which is collected by young boys with one of the world’s less enviable jobs. Their fathers are tanners and they hope, when they grow up, to be tanners themselves, promoted from scraping the pigeon shit off rooftops to standing up to their waists in it, treading the hides for hours at a time until they are softened enough to be dyed.

The hides are then submerged in coloured dyes, which are claimed – some have doubted it – to be entirely organic, using mint for green, indigo for blue, poppies for red, cedar bark for brown, henna for orange and turmeric for yellow (the Fassi insist it is saffron but the economics of that make no sense). A tanner, once again, climbs into the vat.

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The finished leather is sold to artisans who work it into jackets, handbags, pouffes and babouche slippers; and they, in turn, are sold by fast-talking salesmen to tourists who have spent the rest of their money on Berber carpets, Fez blue ceramics and bags of spices.

There is talk now of moving the tanneries out of the Medina and creating a botanic garden in their place. With luck, though, it will get no further than talk.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Narrow alley

Pop-Up Tango in Buenos Aires

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It was late in the afternoon on a sultry day and there were a handful of people at the tables in Plaza Dorrego. A few craft stalls at the margin gave the palest hint of the bustle of the famous Feria de San Telmo on Sunday afternoons. Bored teenagers sat on the wall, glaring and smoking.

The couple appeared from nowhere, both with Hollywood faces, he in a fedora and waistcoat, she in a thigh-split dress and strappy heels. Someone switched on the music and they took to the floor in the middle of the open-air café.

Think of Buenos Aires and you inevitably think of tango. You might also think of fruity Malbecs and thick-cut steaks, choripanes and empanadas, the harlequin houses of La Boca, Eva Perón and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. But, first, you think of tango.

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It is a sexy, stylish dance with carefully choreographed high kicks, lifts and drops, and a close contact which scandalised conservatives for generations. They were uneasy about women being so intimate with their husbands, let alone strangers. When the far right seized power, they banned it and sent it underground until the early 1980’s.

In the nineteenth century, the Argentine government advertised across Europe for labour, and the ambitious and the adventurous came in number to seek fortunes which few of them actually made. The theory goes that they brought the fashionable dances of their old countries with them and that they morphed into one to become what we now know as tango.

But quite why, how and when, nobody really knows, because – as Christine Denniston put it in her insightful history – it “was created by the kinds of people who generally leave no mark on history except by dying in wars”.

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It is a popular cliché that tango began in the brothels of Buenos Aires where – with an abundance of men and a shortage of women – queues would form and the girls would dance with the men as they waited. But, as Denniston noted, if the women were free to dance, they were free to do what the men had gone there for. She might well be right, though, that it was at brothels that the middle classes discovered tango and that it is when it started to get written about.

It spread from the courtyards of the poor to the drawing rooms of the rich and from Buenos Aires to the rest of Argentina and, by the early twentieth century, to Paris, Berlin. London and New York.

It is big business now. There are elaborate stage shows for the tourist market at US$100 a ticket and stores-full of tango memorabilia from antique posters to tacky figurines. For locals and the more adventurous tourists, there are milongas, where everyone is expected to take part. The more traditional have a sad, end-of-the-pier quality and are filled with couples in late middle-age trying to re-enact their youth; modern milongas have DJs instead of bands and attract Millennials.

But you don’t really need to go looking for tango. Spend any time around San Telmo or La Boca, and you are likely to see couples dancing for pesos or just for the hell of it. There is no schedule; it is not advertised: you just have to be there at the right time. It seems entirely spontaneous, and it is closer in spirit to tango’s origins than any top dollar stage show.

© Richard Senior 2016

 

The Fall of Saigon, Revisited

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“Twenty years ago,” reckoned the far-left polemicist John Pilger in 1995, “Hanoi was a Trappist monk and Saigon was a whore with a hangover”.

Saigon, on 29 April 1975, was – as Pilger sketched it – a city of bar girls, street hustlers, opium-addicts, gamblers and black marketeers, but it was also a city of high-rise buildings, Western fashions and a comfortable middle class. Next day, it would fall.

The images of that day – forty-one years ago tomorrow – are among the most iconic of the late twentieth century: the overloaded helicopters struggling from the roof of the US Embassy, the desperate crowds outside, the tank busting through the fence of Independence Palace.

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The old embassy building, at 4 Lê Duẩn Boulevard, up past the colonial-era Notre Dame Cathedral and round the corner, was demolished in the late 1990s, after the Clinton administration restored diplomatic relations and the site was given back to the United States. The planters which used to surround it are still there.

After the years, the months, the weeks of anticipation, and the days of frantic withdrawal, the fall, when it came, was an anti-climax. No shots were fired, no resistance was offered. The demoralised soldiers of the ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army, stripped off their equipment and went home. Rows of helmets and boots lay along the side of the road.

The cameras were not even rolling when the tank burst through the fence around Independence Palace. It had to reverse out and do it again so the photographers could capture it for posterity.

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Independence Palace was a disingenuous name. South Vietnam only came into being as an attempt by the French to regain control of a colony over which Ho Chi Minh had asserted independence. The original palace was what had once been the colonial governor’s residence, but that was bombed in 1962 by dissident pilots in the South Vietnamese air force, sympathetic to Hanoi, who ironically destroyed its left wing.

President Diệm, who had come to power in a free and fair election in which he secured 150,000 more votes than people entitled to cast them (despite advice to keep the result around 60%), commissioned a new building, but was assassinated before it was finished in one of the coups which punctuated South Vietnam’s short history.

From the outside, it could be a municipal swimming pool in a little-known provincial town; on the inside, it might be the headquarters of SPECTRE in one of the early Bond movies. It is open to the public and preserved much as it was on that morning in April 1975 when tanks bust down the fence. All that has really changed is the name. It is Reunification Palace now. That day, forty-one years ago tomorrow, is known here as Reunification Day. They refer to it as the Liberation, not the Fall. Since then, the city has officially been Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, but it is still, informally, Sài Gòn.

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The Fall did not lead to mass-executions, as the Saigonese had feared, although many were forcibly relocated to the countryside. ARVN soldiers and others associated with the old regime, over a million according to some accounts, were sent to re-education camps where most were ill-treated – some abominably – and over a hundred thousand died.

The old men you see peddling cyclos – tricycle rickshaws – around modern Saigon are likely as not to be ARVN veterans. I asked one and he confirmed it, but he did not want to talk about the war or re-education camps: he just wanted to talk about ‘girly bars’.

Vietnam is still nominally communist, but it is a long way from each according to his ability to each according to his needs. Saigon is the economic capital and still feels dramatically different from Hanoi. There are familiar names on the plaques outside the most impressive office blocks, names like Citibank, Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas, Allen & Overy, Mayer Brown, CBRE, Deloitte and Ernst & Young. There are Porsches and Ferraris parked nearby. There are men in sharp-tailored Armani and women in sharp-heeled Louboutins, and sharper than both is the contrast between the rich and the rest: sharper than I saw anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

It is hard now to think of Saigon as having fallen, or if you prefer, being liberated.

© Richard Senior 2016

Nickel and Dining It: Gentrification in Downtown LA

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Nickel Diner is on the front line of the gentrification of downtown LA. It is on Fifth and Main, which puts it a block west of Skid Row, but the borders are fluid. Knots of homeless guys loiter on the pavement nearby.

There was a rundown taco shop in the building before, but the authorities closed it because it was being openly used by dealers. It lay empty for years and, when Nickel Diner’s owners took out a lease in the noughties, pigeons were nesting inside. When they stripped the paneling, they uncovered a menu from the 1940s painted on the wall in bubbles of cheerful colour: Boston baked beans 15¢, Chili with beans 30¢, Hot dogs 19¢, Delicious sandwiches, salami or cheese 20¢, Hamburger 25¢, Root beer 10¢. They made it a feature of their nouvelle diner with its burgundy leather, austere tables and downlighters, which are said to be uplighters glued upside-down to the roof.

The menu is a hipster twist on diner food. Steak and fries, but served with chimichurri and a rocket – arugula, I should say – tomato and avocado salad.  The beef stew comes garnished with an ancho chilli sauce. The hash is pulled pork, instead of corned beef. The pastry chef used to work for Thomas Keller at Per Se and Bouchon. The maple-glazed bacon donuts are justly famous.

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The immediate neighbourhood is smarter now than it was when Nickel Diner first opened and the staff carried pepper spray on their way to work.  Just across the road is the Beaux Arts former Hotel Rosslyn, the biggest and possibly grandest hotel in LA when it was built in 1913. Old photographs show it towering above everything around it, with the proud illuminated sign on its roof announcing “the New Million Dollar Rosslyn Hotel”. (The much-derided Mel Gibson movie The Million Dollar Hotel is named for it.)

In its heyday, the Rosslyn competed for the custom of business travellers with the notorious Cecil a block to the south, but – like it – ended up in single room occupancy, better-known as a flophouse. Back in 2001, the LA Times ran a feature about drunks and crackheads and junkies and dealers who lived, did business and overdosed there. But now it’s been cleaned out and converted into lofts and is marketed at young professionals who want to live in this “vibrant urban area”.

They are all lofts in LA. They might be in the roof space, where lofts are traditionally found, but might just as well be in the basement. Every flat on every floor of a twenty-storey building is a loft, and you might think that is wrong on so many levels.

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The Pacific Electric Building along the street opened in 1905 as offices and a gentlemen’s club, before that meant strippers and lap dancers. The Pacific Electric Railway had a terminus at ground floor level, and there are still “Danger” signs from when you had to look out for trains. But now it’s the Pacific Electric Lofts.

There are coffee shops where you can get a cappuccino with your choice of beans and milk and sit and drink it among digital nomads with beards and full-sleeve tattoos; there is a deli selling superfood salads, craft beers and quinoa.

Yet, drop one street, and there is no sign at all of gentrification: just discount stores and empty units. East of that, every pavement is lined with tents and old sleeping bags laid out on cardboard and litter and old shopping trolleys, and several thousand homeless people, many disabled, sitting in wheelchairs or hobbling on crutches, many obviously mentally ill. It is not somewhere to linger, or go anywhere near at night.

© Richard Senior 2016

Welcome to Morocco, My Friend

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“You tell him fuck off.”             

“Haha. I’m not doing that.”

“Yes! You tell him ‘FUCK OFF!’ and he fuck off.”

“Well he might fuck off if you told him to but he wouldn’t if I did.”

It had seemed a good idea to get to Morocco the classical way, through Spain by train and across to Tangier by boat. But it had meant two long days of travelling and an evening ferry which sailed an hour late (it apparently always does) and no longer comes into the old port but to Tangier Med, fifty-odd kilometres along the coast.

I had taken it for granted that the bus into town would stop right outside the terminal building, but it didn’t, and there was nothing to tell me where it might stop. I asked people at the stores in the port but they gave me instructions so vague they were of no use at all; the security guard on the gate was the most precise with “out on the road” accompanied by an expansive wave of the arm. There were several roads.

The sort of people who loiter around every port in the world approached me with ostensible offers of help but their tone and mannerisms seemed better suited to an early-hours argument about a spilled drink. I walked away from them all. Eventually, a girl who worked in the port showed me the way: through the car park, over a verge, out onto the main road, up to the top of the hill.

The only space on the bus was on the back seat, either side of a big guy with his legs spread wide and the look of a man who is never too far from considerable violence. Nobody, it seemed, dare sit next to him. I stood. But then a helpful Moroccan tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that there was space on the back seat, so I had to go sit there. Then the driver flung the bus round the corner and I fell on top of the hard guy.

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He picked me up with a look of extreme impatience and when I struggled with my bag, grabbed it with one hand and slung it into the corner of the seat. I squeezed in next to it and tried to become invisible.

Another shifty guy got on at the next stop and gave me the hard sell for an unofficial taxi, but I declined that and set off walking towards the Medina.

My guidebook said that muggings were “not unknown” along the Cornice, but that slippery formulation – popular with writers who are not sure what they mean – could embrace everything from they have happened on rare occasions to they happen all the time. I walked briskly, in any case, with my 20 kilo pack and 10 kilo day bag.

The closer I got to the old Medina, the more figures slipped out of the shadows and walked in step beside me.

Buenas noches,” they tried. I ignored them.

Bon soir.” I looked straight ahead.

Buena sera.” I kept on walking.

 “Hello.” I quickened my step.

You have hotel?”

 “Yes thanks,” out of the corner of my mouth.

You want hash?”

No thanks,” still not looking at them.

They peeled off and melted back into the shadows, except one who stuck with me all the way, keeping up a constant monologue.  “Welcome to Morocco, my friend.

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 “There are good guys and bad guys everywhere,” he said. “I’m a good guy.” He told me that several times and I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Ask any of these guys,” he added, gesturing towards the men sitting in doorways, as if I could really approach them and say – in English – “excuse me, but is this guy a good guy?”

The old Medina is a wiring diagram of alleys and I tried to orientate myself while pretending I knew exactly where I was going.

I can help you, my friend,” said the good guy, “just tell me where you want to go”.

Eventually, he wore me down, and I did tell him and he took me up into the Medina but I refused to follow him down the quieter, darker alleys and stood ready to run if – as I expected him to any minute – he pulled out a knife.

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But then I saw a sign for the hostel and relaxed a little. It seemed conceivable that he really was a good guy. I gave him 20 Dirhams for his trouble and he suddenly became very angry and demanded 200. I had only just arrived and was not sure whether 200 Dirhams was a little or a lot and was certainly not going to whip out my iPhone and look it up. I gave him the money with bad grace and worked out later that he had earned about £15 (US$20) for 10 minutes work, which is a lot more than I used to get as a lawyer.

Heroin,” spat the manager of the hostel when I told him the story; “immigrants,” he added. He was the Moroccan equivalent of a Daily Mail reader.

You tell him fuck off,” his assistant advised, if anyone else approached me.  He checked me in and I walked round the corner to find a restaurant and ended up in the Petit Socco and sat at an outside table at Cafe Central, which – though I didn’t know it then – was Burroughs’ local when he lived in Tangier, strung out on heroin, writing the disturbing, hallucinatory masterpiece, Naked Lunch.

I went to look round after dinner, up the street to the Grand Socco, down the next street and into the souks where the stalls were still trading, even though it was late.

My friend…” a man called. I ignored him.

Mon ami…”

Amigo…”

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The lane which I thought took me back to the Petit Socco turned out to be a dead end.

My friend…”

And the man I thought I had shaken off ten minutes before had, in fact, been following me all the time. “My friend,” he said, with about as much friendliness as angry men who tack “mate” to the end of “have you got a fucking problem”.

I ignored him and walked away but he hurried after me. “There are good guys and bad guys everywhere. I’m a good guy.” A different guy but word for word the same lines.

I stopped, turned abruptly, and went in the opposite direction, but he stuck with me like a missile locked on target. “I can help you my friend.” I told him I didn’t need any help; I told him to go away, although not in the words suggested by the guy at the hostel.

What’s that yellow building?” I asked, pointing at nothing at the bottom of the street. It is an old trick but he fell for it and as he looked down the street, I sprinted up it, back to the Grand Socco, and down the first street – the wrong one – towards the port, wondering how I was going to find my way back to the hostel.

At the bottom of the hill, though, I recognised the street, past the bars, along the front where I had walked with the first dodgy guy, and the steps leading up to the Petit Socco, then the alley which led through to my hostel.

I got back and slept fitfully, waking at intervals from complicated nightmares.

© Richard Senior 2016

The Curious Classics of Colonia

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An ancient Beetle, firing on two or three cylinders and with more holes than exhaust, snapped, crackled and popped down Calle De San Pedro.

The diabolical sound echoed between the walls, shattered the peace, outraged the feral dogs which spend their days padding round town and dozing in the shade. For each one that set off barking, another three responded. Those closest ran, barking, after the Beetle, trying and failing to bite its tyres; reinforcements bounded from nearby streets, barging aside old ladies who shouted in protest.

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I saw the Beetle again later in the day, parked with its windows left open and doors unlocked, the bodywork slumped on its shot rear suspension. The engine cover was held on with twisted wire; kitchen foil had been crumpled into the hole where the speedo wasn’t; the front wings had been painted in household emulsion, with a brush.

There are classic cars everywhere in Colonia del Sacramento in the southwestern corner of Uruguay. Many – like the Beetle – are everyday runabouts. Others sit at the side of the road in the middle of town, apparently abandoned; some have been made into features.

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There is a rare, century-old Model T pick-up outside a restobar. They rest their menu boards against it and store firewood in the back. Restored, it might fetch US$40,000 on the international market, but then where would the restobar lean its boards?

The popular café, El Drugstore, on Plaza de Armas, has a collection of old cars. There is a Model A Ford built sometime around 1930, which they have cut the side out of and turned into an intimate table for two. Behind it, painted in the same matt black, is a Citroen Traction Avant from the Forties, which they use as a planter: fronds erupt from the windows and boot. Round the corner is an Austin 10 from the late 1930’s, in fair condition and not – as yet – converted into anything whimsical.

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Another Model A – a station wagon – has seemingly been forgotten under sycamore trees on the edge of the old town; its white paint is blackened and sticky with sap. All the doors were open when I passed it early one morning, presumably so the dogs could jump in to sleep. They were closed again an hour later, although the streets were still silent and the windows all around still shuttered.

On a quiet corner, shaded by trees, down near the yacht club, there is a Morris Oxford from the 1950s under a thick layer of dust. Much of its paint has flaked off, but the body has not rusted in that temperate climate, as it would have done half a century ago in the soggy country in which it was built.

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A Ford Pop of similar vintage is displayed as a conceptual artwork down a side street off the main drag of Avenida General Flores. There are tags sprayed on one door and the boot and six-foot papier-mache fish in the front seats.

There were still Vauxhall Chevettes on the road in Britain when I was a kid.  Shove-its, we called them. They were laughable old bangers even then. I had not seen one for years, but saw at least half a dozen in Colonia, along with other European cars from the Sixties and Seventies which I never even knew existed: a Peugeot 404, a Fiat 600 (a bit like the iconic Cinquecento, but with all the charm engineered out), and a very rusty Fiat 124, which I mistook for the virtually identical Lada.

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There were Ford and Chevrolet pick-up trucks built before Eisenhower was sworn-in as President, yet still looking surprisingly fresh. There were better Beetles than the one which had upset the dogs in the morning.

I have seen it suggested on several sites that Colonia’s classic cars are a legacy of economic collapse in the Sixties: that a people once rich enough on wool and beef to import new cars from Europe and the United States suddenly found themselves having to make the old ones last much longer. I am not at all convinced, though. That could, perhaps, explain the Morris Oxfords and Ford Pops, but not the Model A’s and Austin 10’s, nor, for that matter, the Chevettes.

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Besides, other Latin American countries saw their economies trashed in the second half of the twentieth century; several, like Uruguay, ended up ruled by noxious dictatorships. But with the obvious exception of embargoed Cuba, none has the abundance of classic cars you see in Colonia del Sacramento.

© Richard Senior 2016