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   

Staying in San Telmo

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It was a fine nineteenth century building in the same state of repair as most in San Telmo. The paint was flaking from the shutters, the stonework had fallen from the balustrades; the stucco was criss-crossed with graffiti.

The sign outside called it a hotel, the WiFi code called it a hostel. More than anything, though, it recalled the cheaper guesthouses of Bangkok.

The room was hot and airless. The fan did not so much cool the air as swish it about, and made a noise like the treadmill at the gym. The walls were dirty, the floorboards were splintering, the French doors had swelled too much to shut. There was the inevitable dead cockroach in the corner, as ubiquitous in hotels at this level as Molton Brown toiletries at the top end. It was there when I arrived, it was there when I left five days later, and it is probably still there now.

There was a sort of a patio linking the room to the bathroom, but it had a high wall blocking the view to anything but rusting tin sheets, broken windows and ferns growing up the inside wall. If I stood on a chair, though, I could look over at the place where they slung the broken furniture.

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San Telmo is a characterful neighbourhood, the oldest in Buenos Aires. It was a poor barrio, centred upon a Jesuit mission, until 1767 when the Spanish drove the Jesuits out. It briefly went upmarket in the mid-nineteenth century, but a yellow fever epidemic put a stop to that. The rich left and their empty homes were carved into tenements and filled with immigrants fresh off the boats from Europe. Artists later moved in among them and lent the barrio the bohemian air it retains.

There was neither the money nor the mindset to tear down the old buildings and replace them with new, to extend or to bring into line with each ephemeral fashion, so everything stayed much as it was, photogenically decaying.

In the mornings, the smell of strong coffee and freshly-baked empanadas hangs in the air all over the barrio; in the evenings, the smoke converges from the many parrillas* as thick slabs of prime beef sizzle on grills. The convenience stores stay open late and do business through bars on the doors. The jobless sit listlessly in doorways; some sell odds and ends laid out on blankets.

There are rusting tram tracks up Calle Estados Unidos, although trams have not run on them for half a century. Dozens of Quilmes bottle tops have been trodden between the cobblestones outside the bars.

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I assumed that the cars parked up the street had been abandoned years before, until one of them grumbled past my hotel. It was as if all the cars from all the scrapyards of Buenos Aires had come spontaneously to life to roam the city’s streets. One was missing a bonnet, another a windscreen, and a few seemed to have been in the sort of accidents which make the front page of the newspaper, yet remained in everyday use.

Mercado San Telmo is outwardly unchanged since the last years of the nineteenth century when the barrio’s European immigrants went there to buy cheeses and hams from back home. It takes up the whole of the block between Estados Unidos and Carlos Calvo, opening out in the middle to an attractive wrought-iron and glass atrium.

There are hole-in-the-wall stalls selling beer and choripanes, baguettes toasted on the grill and stuffed with chorizo and slathered with chimichurri sauce**; but they seem, sadly, to be getting edged out by shiny coffee stands which could be anywhere from Washington to Wellington, from Cape Town to Cape Cod.

There are still butchers and greengrocers, as there have been for going on 120 years, but much of the market is now given over to antiques: to tinplate toy cars, brass letterboxes, old tango posters, military uniforms, radios, typewriters, and telephones. The antique shops continue down the lower end of Carlos Calvo and round the corner along Calle Defensa, interspersed with wine merchants, bodegas and design shops, all the way to Plaza Dorrega where the world-famous antiques fair, Feria de San Telmo, bustles every Sunday morning.

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A block to the south, there are two good galleries side-by-side, Museo de Arte Moderno and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, then the gentrified end of San Telmo fades into the dangerous edges of La Boca.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally ‘grills’. In this context, restaurants specialising in grilled meat, especially the celebrated Argentinian beef.

**Made with finely chopped shallots, dried chillies, garlic, dried oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar

Brisbane: Bank Holidays, Barbecues and Biplanes

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Brisbane was deserted. The bus pulled into an empty terminal. There was no one on the information desk, no one at the ticket counter, no one in the cafés and bars.

All through the city, the lights were off, the shutters were down, the plazas were empty of people. Even the bottle shops, the pubs, the adult shops and the “gentlemen’s club” were closed; the “topless hairdressers” must have had the day off.

My hostel had its usual Friday night barbecue on the roof, but it was soft drinks only because it is illegal to buy beer on Good Friday in Queensland, except in a restaurant with food.

It is a much bigger deal than it is in the UK, where office workers get a day off and the banks and public buildings are closed but the shops stay open, the town centres bustle, the roads are gridlocked and there would likely be a popular uprising if they tried to make it illegal to buy beer.

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Brisbane will never be as cool as Melbourne, nor as glamorous as Sydney; but it is worth a couple of days. There are heritage buildings like the Italianesque City Hall and Treasury Building slotted between modern blocks, and botanic gardens, and public art, sited seemingly at random: a stainless steel alien standing at crossroads as if he were waiting for the lights to change before he set about colonising the earth; and a herd of kangaroo made from machine parts on and around a bench.

I divided a couple of hours between the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art, then sat outside with a Wagyu burger and espresso, watching a big monitor lizard muscle towards a man eating his lunch on a bench beside the river.

He tried to shoo it off with his foot but it ignored him, and he moved his legs to the other side of the bench and got ready to run. The lizard stayed where it was and kept looking at him and he realised, then, that it wanted a bit of his sandwich, so they shared it and both left happy enough.

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The Queensland Museum has some dinosaur bones, a lot of stuffed birds, a big fat dead snake and dead cockroaches the size of matchboxes. But I only really went in to see Bert Hinkler’s Avian.

I knew about Hinkler already: an Australian who settled in England and became a test pilot with AV Roe & Co after the First World War. He was the first to fly solo from England to Australia, in 1928 in an Avro Avian, a little, single-engine, open-cockpit biplane made out of wood and fabric.

The biplane hangs from the roof, now, at the Queensland Museum and looks even smaller and flimsier than it does in photographs. I have flown short distances, as a passenger or with an instructor, in the similar but more advanced de Havilland Tiger Moth and it is a raw experience after even the most basic of modern aircraft. You are buffeted by the wind; it stings your face. Though you are wrapped in a fur-lined flying jacket and scarf, the cold still finds a way in – and it will be a great deal worse at the sort of altitude you would fly when crossing continents. There is the constant roar of the engine and the whistling of the wind in the wires and it would – I am sure – send me crazy after the first two hundred miles.

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It is hard to conceive of flying the older, more basic Avian across the Channel to France, let alone the 11,000 miles from Croydon to Darwin across Europe and Asia and the lonely expanse of the Timor Sea, at a cruising speed of less than 80 knots, averaging the equivalent of London to Prague every day for fifteen consecutive days.

But once Hinkler had done it, a procession of adventurers followed him, CWA Scott, Jim Mollison, Charles Kingsford-Smith, Jean Batten, Amy Johnson; they shaved days off his time, until, by the late 1930’s, several had reached Australia in around five days.

I knew all this, yet still imagined it a great ordeal when I sat, two months later, in the economy cabin of a QANTAS jet on a 14-hour flight from Sydney to LA.

© Richard Senior 2016

Historic image: By Contributor(s): Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons