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

Learning to Love Osaka

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Osaka, at first glance, is a hard city to love. It seems to be 140 square miles of concrete, sardine-packed with tower blocks and criss-crossed with flyovers.

But the cherry blossoms along the Ō-kawa River temper the brutality of the concrete. The river parts and flows either side of Nakanoshima island, where the first mile or so has been landscaped and turned into a public park. It is a tranquil spot, lovely to walk through with a gentle breeze blowing off the river, and as you gaze at the lawns and the trees and the rose gardens, you might not even notice that the island is hemmed in by soulless office blocks.

Beyond the park, there is a hint of what Osaka might have looked like before the War in the 1912 Central Public Hall with its red and grey brick, stained glass and cupolas and the 1904 Prefectural Library with its monumental steps and columns.

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The classical castle nearby was rebuilt in the twentieth century, but then so were most of the castles in Japan; if they were not burned down in the tumult of the Meiji Restoration, they were flattened in World War II. It is still impressive to see, and worth paying to go in for the museum with its samurai swords and suits of armour, screens and fans, woodcut prints and ancient scrolls, and the panoramic view from the top.

The Umeda Sky Building is the high-tech, modernist equivalent of the castle, designed, like it, to dominate its neighbourhood, to awe and intimidate, to exude power and wealth; and it has the best views in town. The lift scoots you almost to the top, then an elevator takes you through plate glass nothingness to the roof.

To the south and east, Osaka seems everlasting with office and apartment blocks fading to infinity. To the north, they are interrupted only by the broad expanse of the Yodo River, emptying out into the bay to the west.

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At night, a million squares and circles of light glow in the windows, yellow lights swirl at street level, red lights pulsate on the rooftops, neon hoardings shimmer in blues and reds and greens, and the spokes of the giant Ferris wheel out on the harbour glow orange if the next day is set to be sunny, green if cloudy and blue if it is going to rain.

Amerika-mura (American village) got its name from shops selling second-hand Levis and Zippos and trades on it with Uncle Sam and Statue of Liberty models bursting from shop fronts and local interpretations of American fast food.

The vintage shops and street style stores blast J-Pop from the doorways to deter over-25s and to try to encourage the sullen girls in clumpy shoes and over-the-knee socks and giggly boys with spiky yellow hair to look briefly away from their smartphones.

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A little to the east, the Shinsaibashi-Suji shopping arcade extends for a dozen blocks with all the world’s high street chains mixed up with noodle shops and pachinko* parlours, soundtracked one minute by J-Pop, the next by Vivaldi, and always  by the staff in the shops shouting irasshaimase! when customers enter and arigatou gozaimashita! when they leave.

Shoppers jostle down the street with three bags hanging off each arm, mothers propel push-chairs, teenagers snigger in unruly groups, tourists stop and whip out their selfie sticks and the crowd eddies round them. At the end of each block, a road cuts through and the honking cars surprise you.

The mall empties out by the Dōtonbori Canal, where there are monster neon adverts wrapped round the ends of the buildings. The oldest and best-known is the marathon runner, who has been advertising the Glico confectionary company since 1935.

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There is a crab restaurant round the corner which states its business with a massive 3D model of a spider crab above the door with claws that wave and eyeballs which extend in turn like pistons. Other restaurants along the street have taken up the theme and there are big puffer fish lanterns, an octopus, model gyoza dumplings, a giant hand holding nigiri-zushi and a life-size model cow.

There are bars and bowling alleys and amusement arcades. In the doorway of one, a salaryman, with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, danced like your dad to the music from a game.

But just steps from all the sensory overload of Dōtonbori is a quiet corner with a temple dedicated to Fudo Myo-o, the deity of fury, where worshippers stop, pray and throw water over the diety’s statue, which is thick with moss from years of soakings.

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There are cobbled alleys lined by izakayas** with nothing but the traditional red paper lanterns to advertise themselves, no mechanical crabs, no illuminated puffer fish, no model cows. I ate very well in one of them, sitting at the bar watching the chef prepare the food and serve it to me on a long-handled peel like bakers use to take loaves from the oven.

Sake was once served in a small wooden box called a masu, but the practice fell out of fashion. Izakayas, though, sometimes put a glass inside the masu and let the sake overflow into it to show how generous their measures are. Here, the chef, who was also the barman, carried on pouring until first the glass and then the masu overflowed.

I had misjudged Osaka. The ugliness I saw at first was nothing like as all-pervasive as I feared. While it is no Kyoto, it has a sprinkling of traditional sights, and a whole lot more which could not be reduced to items on a list of Top Things to See…, but which is rewarding to see nonetheless. Above all, though, it has an infectious joie de vivre which I never saw matched as I travelled through Japan.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Japanese pinball

**Bars which sell food – loosely like Spanish tapas bars

One Morning in Nuremberg

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The Altstadt was quiet on that late autumn morning. It was a few weeks too early for the Christkindelmarkt, but there was a regular market with stalls, under red and white awnings, selling gingerbread, wild mushrooms and flowers.

It was a cold morning and the customers’ breath fogged in front of their faces at the bratwurst stand as the vendor grilled sausages, stuffed them in buns and slathered them in German mustard. The wind lifted the edge of the awning.

The Pegnitz River slices the old town neatly in half, St Lorenz to the south, St Sebald to the north. Each has a venerable church with twin towers imposing themselves on the skyline of spires and turrets and terracotta roofs.

There is a choice of bridges to cross the river. Several are centuries-old. Museumsbrücke leads directly into the Hauptmarkt – the main market square – and has the best view of them all. To the left, as you walk over it, is the Fleischbrücke, standing since 1598, notwithstanding the Second World War; to the right is the Heilig-Geist-Spital – Holy Spirit Hospital – built in 1339 and beautifully reflected in the river. The low arches beneath it blend into their reflection and form the shape of spectacles.

The cafes around the square across the river had optimistally put out their tables and chairs, but no one was sitting outside that day. A tour group, wrapped up in winter coats, trooped into the square and stopped in front of the Schöner Brunnen, the gilded 14th century fountain. The guide twisted the brass ring in the fence around it with a clank and a squeak and told – I assume – the story I had read in my guidebook about it bringing good luck.

Mention Nuremberg, even now, and many will immediately think of the Nazis; but its history did not begin with Hitler’s bombastic rallies, nor end with the war crimes tribunal.

In its half-timbered heyday, it was the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the centre of the German Renaissance. Albrecht Dürer, was born and died there; his house survives as a museum. It is one of a cluster of timber-framed fachwerkhäuser in the steep cobbled streets in the lee of the castle at the top of the Aldstadt. The shops around it sell antiques, antiquarian books and, one, garden gnomes in bondage gear, as if gnomes were not creepy enough already.

There is evidently more to Nuremberg, behind the lace curtains, than gingerbread and wooden toys.

I found that again when I started walking round the old city walls and came to a sign which purported to bar the way to under-eighteens. I was puzzled, at first; but beyond it, the windows were framed with red tube lights and the street was busy with furtive middle-aged men.

More tourists appeared in the Hauptmarkt in the quarter of an hour leading up to twelve and assembled on the cobbles in front of the Frauenkirche to watch the mechanical clock. On the hour, a bell tinged, drummers mimed drumming, trumpeters jerked up their arms, and miniature electors rotated around a miniature Holy Roman Emperor.

“Oh!”said the crowd in half a dozen languages,“… Is that it?”

© Richard Senior 2015

Rīga, You’re Lovely, but Please Let Me Sleep!

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A breeze blew off the Daugova River and tempered the munificent sun. Trams howled and clanked along the boulevards which frame Old Rīga. Cobbled lanes converged in squares with verdigrised spires, turrets and towers, gargoyles, grotesques and columns.

The sun brought out the Beautiful People. They strolled in the squares, ducked into shops and draped themselves over chairs at tables under awnings, accessorising with cigarettes and espressos; they sprawled and frolicked in Batejkalna Park across the boulevard at the edge of the old town.

It is a pleasant park on a sunny day with its sloping lawns and meandering paths and cast iron standard lamps. The Pilsētas Kanāls divides the park into two and hands out half each to the Old Rīga and Centrs neighbourhoods. A pretty wooden launch from 1907 chugs tourists along the canal. It chugs under bridges, past a fountain, through a tunnel, alongside the Central Market, then chugs out onto the river under the railway bridge and the road bridge and back through the marina, past moored yachts, and round again to the canal.

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The market was the biggest in Europe, once. Its buildings were made from old Zeppelin hangers. The stalls spill out into the surrounding streets and occupy several blocks. You can buy a whole salmon, a big sack of cat litter and a Soviet air force uniform, if they all happen to be on your shopping list.

Centrs is quieter than Old Rīga but just as beguiling. It has more Art Nouveau facades than you will see in one place anywhere else in the world, and they are as exuberant as anything but Gaudí’s Modernista buildings. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei, the Battleship Potemkin director, designed some of the more arresting, with eagles, sphinxes, lion’s heads, keyhole-shaped windows, and human faces with gaping mouths and expressions which suggest they have just seen the architect’s bill.

I had a room in the top of a townhouse right in the middle of Old Rīga. It was just a mattress on the floor of a room little bigger, but I was happy enough with that. Or at least I was until I tried to sleep and found out how good the sound system was on the late bar round the corner. Earplugs just muted the higher frequencies and seemed to trap the bass in my skull.

I got up and got dressed and went out in the end. It was a warm night and I walked round Old Rīga, then sat a table at a bar in the square and had a couple of beers. The music had stopped by the time I got back and I slept then, finally, for a few hours until the other guests began to get up. Whenever the heavy front door slammed shut, as it always did, it shook the whole fabric of the building; two people walking down the corridor was like a surprise attack by a battalion.

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The next night was the same, except that people moved into the room next door a couple of hours after the music stopped and the walls were so thin that their conversation was as clear as if they had been sitting on the edge of the bed.

I logged, fuzzy-headed, onto a booking site and paid a lot more than I normally would for a nice hotel overlooking Batejkalna Park. It was a lovely room and, on a normal Saturday, it would doubtless have been as peaceful as I had hoped; but that Saturday was the Rīga Festival and right across the street there was a 24-hour basketball marathon with booming commentary and amped-up EDM.

Fine, then, I thought, perhaps I will sleep when I get to Estonia.

© Richard Senior 2015

At the Movies in LA

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All of LA’s a set and all the men and women in it merely actors.

Everything seems a cliché from the movies. The pap-pa-pap-pap of impatient drivers. The apocalyptic howl of the siren on a ladder truck. The Harpo Marx horn on the fire truck behind it. The cops congregating in the coffee shop. Their angular black and white cars with chirping sirens and “To protect and to serve” on the doors.

There is, in the hills, the establishing shot from numberless movies – the stock symbol of the movie business – a seventies replica of a twenties advert for a housing development: forty-five foot letters erratically spaced to spell HO LLY W OOD.

‘Hollywood’ is an anachronistic shorthand now, like ‘Fleet Street’ for the London press. Of the old majors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, roughly between Warner’s The Jazz Singer in 1927 and Universal’s The Birds in 1963, only Paramount remains. The rest of what is now the Big Six long ago moved out into Los Angeles County.

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Hollywood Boulevard has the much-photographed, much-parodied Walk of Fame with its 2,500 pink stars embossed with the names of the biggest stars in this city of stars; it has Grauman’s Chinese Theater with the hand and footprints of more big stars, and the Dolby Theater where another constellation of stars assembles each year for the Oscars.

But it soon fades to the west into soulless suburbia and to the east into discount stores and beyond to Thai Town and Little Armenia. Drop two blocks south and you are on the legendary Sunset Boulevard, but east of the Strip, it is a characterless stretch of gas stations and orthodontists.

Universal Studios is not technically in LA, because it stands on a 415 acre plot of unincorporated land within the city boundary. Los Angeles firemen have access to it but Los Angeles taxmen do not. It is part working studio, part theme park, and all tourist trap. But it is as good a way as any to pass an afternoon in LA, if you check your pretensions in at the door.

A tram takes you through generic sets which you have seen in dozens of movies: a Wild West town, a Mexican village, the business district of every city in the world with skyscrapers which stop at third floor level and a square of townhouses which can be anywhere from eighteenth century Vienna to Hell’s Kitchen last week. It passes through the sets of War of the Worlds, with a real Boeing 747 chopped into pieces among ruined houses, Jaws, where ‘Bruce’ the mechanical shark breaks out of the water as the tram approaches, and Psycho where an actor dressed as Norman Bates dumps Marion’s body in the trunk of the Ford and stumps towards you with a knife.

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There is a simulated flash flood and a simulated earthquake, in which the tram shakes and everything around it disintegrates; there is a collection of cars from the movies, a demonstration of special effects, a room of memorabilia, and movie-themed roller coasters.

It is crassly commercial, of course; it is as cheesy as a family-sized quattro formaggi pizza. But you can hardly attack it for that. Might as well attack an elephant for being big and having a trunk.

© Richard Senior 2015

They Do Things Differently in Helsinki

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Whole sides of salmon sizzle on the grill at a stall in the marketplace down by the harbour. There are stalls with baskets of lingonberries, bilberries, cloudberries and cranberries under brightly-coloured awnings. There is reindeer meat and handicrafts from Lapland and fur hats for epic winters.

The sun sparkles on the waves in the harbour where a woman sells freshly-caught fish from her boat and a full-rigged sailing ship rocks at its moorings and a deckhand monkeys up the mast and guffawing young men putter off in a motorboat and the Soumenlinna ferry backs out of its berth and a yacht glides in with its staysail pregnant with wind.

Old Detroit cars throb down the North Esplanade past the rattling trams. It is rare to see them in Europe, at least in any number, but they do things differently in Helsinki.

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Senate Square, a block from the harbour, was supposedly modelled on St Petersburg, by a German architect, in the familiar neo-classical style. Yet its confident simplicity seems quintessentially Finnish.

Helsinki’s architects have drawn from established international schools, but interpreted them in their own way. Bold statements are rare. Helsinki is not Riga, nor Barcelona. But clean lines, smooth curves and clever details are commonplace. Everything, moreover, seems harmonious, as if the city had been planned all at once instead of evolving over two centuries.

The ethos extends beyond architecture. Design is to Helsinki what fashion is to Milan. The design district, spread over twenty-five streets north and west of the harbour, has something like 200 shops selling deceptively simple, often revolutionary, furniture, homeware, lighting and glass.

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On almost any street, you can find a store selling chairs so radical and yet so practical, it is as if centuries of chair designers have been going about it all wrong. You can find gastropubs selling craft beers and salmon and harissa burgers with pimientón-dusted fries, and restaurants with cool white walls and blonde wood tables and sautéed reindeer with lingonberries on the menu. Yet you can walk several blocks before you find an ATM. They do things differently in Helsinki.

Wherever you are in the city, you are never more than a few blocks from a park. They are not so much ring-fenced from urban development as blended seamlessly into it. You can cycle round the headland, stroll along the water’s edge watching the paddle-boarders, use the outdoor gyms, or sit with a picnic and gaze at whimsical sculptures. There are public saunas dotted about the centre and even the cheapest hotels, even backpacker hostels, have their own; many Finns have them at home.

Across the bridge from the city centre, past the iconic Hakaniemi Market Hall, the traditionally working-class Kallio district is now full of character cafes, organic food shops and hipsters. The boys wear Breton jerseys and Romanov beards, the girls vintage dresses and brogues; everyone wears hats and tatts. There was a guy swanking round in jackboots and an officer’s cap worn at an unmilitary angle, and another in the trousers and waistcoat of a three-piece suit and nothing underneath but tattoos.

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They do things differently in Helsinki, the capital of the nation which gave us the jollity of Sibelius and the irritating Nokia Tune, and Angry Birds and the Egg chair, a historically progressive state which had universal suffrage before anyone else but New Zealand, and which – in the Nordic social democratic tradition – built a comprehensive welfare state in parallel with a robust economy and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

Some say that it is the most liveable city in the world. I saw no reason to disagree with them.

© Richard Senior 2015