Why Naples?

So, first of all, what is Naples? Naples is a collection of grid-like streets, planned and overwritten with graffiti spray, pocketed with decaying books and oozing tomatoes.

 The drill of mopeds connects the Neapolitans and rattles tourists, everything is always a prelude to some form of mozzarella’d pause.

“See non ora quando?” sums it up, “If not now when?”. Say it! Do it! Eat it! Move it! As the horns line up and drop like dominos. As the bee-like cars buzz busily in queues, wishing they were mopeds.

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The guide books claim to know which pizzerias to go to, wildly recommending this top five or that top 11. In fact, the more time you spend in any Italian city, the more clear you are on the enormity and impossibility of classifying ‘the best’ pizzeria.

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In Naples, a pizza is like a person and all have the essential DNA. The tongue-twisting question of which pizzeria was the best would involve testing every pizza that pizzeria has ever made and then comparing that to all the pizzas ever made in all the pizzerias since the first pizza was made,  since well over a hundred years ago!

No. Much better to simply head out and eat and get ready for good and possibly great pizza in any pizzeria that has survived the demands of hungry Neapolitans for more than a decade, say.

Life after pizza

But there is much more to Naples. There’s art inside churches and outside, in between the writings on the walls. There’s bits of Pompeii in the Museo Archeologico – egg poachers and colanders and bowls for figs, wondering why they haven’t been used for 2000 years.

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And then there’s the sea, there’s always the sea, the only thing that cannot be stained with graffiti or tomato blood. Look out to the islands and bobbing mussel baskets from to the top of  Castel dell’Ovo, so named after the poet laureate of ancient Rome, Virgil, left an egg there. It must still be in tact, for when it cracks Naples yolk will be washed away forever….

…Then walk down to the harbour that skirts the castle, a lovely, tranquil place to catch your breath and eat fish, at a stage in your trip when you’re too bloated with pizza to eat any more until suppertime.

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Many tourists do Naples the injustice of treating it as a mere comma in a sentence about Pompeii. But having given it just a fraction of the love it deserves, we found ourselves heading nearer to Vesuvius with the heard, an hour down the coast, pretty sure, but not absolutely certain, about the current state of mind of  perhaps the most devastatingly capricious volcano the human race has ever seen.

Do it like a Roman

The best bit of Pompeii + Vesuvius turned out to be the 6 cubicles of the ‘red light district’ where so-called  ‘Lupanar’ (House of the Wof-Bitches) served a full menu of options, with every cupboard-like room offering its own signature dish, if the paintings above the various doors are to be taken at face value 😉

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Having sampled these, the Pompeian middle classed homini would, no doubt be hungry and maybe a little bit sweaty. Conveniently, there were and are a string of fast food counters, much like a plastic-free Soho,  lining the road to the jaw dropping public baths. Here, whether you’re in hot, cold or tepidarium, every wall is frescoed and all the water was cleaned with a mindbogglingly innovative Roman hydraulic filter mechanism evident through bits of exposed piping here and there.

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Pre-trip planning

Although Pompeii’s definitely worth the trip, be warned – several of the villas and the main circus seemed to be  under restoration in March 2019, a fact that’s hard to find on the web, probably to protect the tour operators. Remember also, that it’s worth checking the weather and even giving the ticket office at Vesuvius a call before setting out on a climb. We were taken there only to find that the peak was shrouded in fog…

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But nonetheless, tick tick tick, we had been to Vesuvius and Pompeii and seen the lucky penises (or should I say phalli?) graffitied on the walls. We were informed that, to the lusty Pompeians, the phallus held no taboo. It  was, and still is, a universal symbol of health and wealth. You may wonder why, in modern Naples and the surrounding Campania, there are bunches of ‘chillies’ hanging up everywhere. They are, in fact, pointed phalli, shaved into chillies by the prudish Holy Roman Catholic church in the 6th century….

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Back to Naples for afternoon treats

And so we let Naples have us again and filled out stomachs and eyes and ears with more ‘soddisfazione’ than we thought possible. The city has a way of making you somehow forever hungry and forever full at the same time – making you moan in protest before sweetening your outrage into sensuously carefree joy at everything – a gorgeous church or the heavenly, infinite layers of crispy pastry that hold the soft, sweet ricotta heart of any sfogliatella.

Sfoglatella

Where to stay?

Anywhere, near the centro-storico, somewhere near the Piazza Dante  – where it’s chilled and relatively chic, yet gritty and fascinating – that washed out timeless elegance that Naples does best.

Piazza D

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Passage to the India Club

A review of The India Club on London’s Strand

It’s easy, as you walk down the Strand, to be fooled by the enormous Edwardian facades and the sweep of Alwdych’s crescent, into thinking you are in London. Don’t be. You are somewhere in India, of course, and it’s shortly after 1950 and Krishna Menon, India’s first High Commissioner, Prime Minister Nehru and Lady Mountbatten have just agreed the menu – everything you’d expect, good decent, honest dhosas, something for everyone, everyone welcome.

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We were walking along, past Kings College’s wide, depressing 1970s glass, I was looking for a large sign, a window, an entrance, a door and all I saw was a discrete little black board, as inconspicuous as possible. Next to it, on our right, was a shiny fuchsia linoleum staircase  – slightly surprised at our being there but happy to show us up, none the less. 

After this point, the year 2019 becomes indistinct, like an old polaroid left out on a hot park-bench, and everything goes a little bit orange, a little bit warm and blurry and you start to breathe the air of the Raj, a past that seems to have kept it’s door open at 143 The Strand – everything forgiven, open and yet only for the lucky ones who see the blackboard and trust the tangerine stairs – the way up to a secret realm, like platform 9 and three quarters at Kings Cross.

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Will self observes: “The India Club is beautifully old-fashioned – and not like an Indian restaurant in 1950s Britain, for there were hardly any of those, but like one in 1950s India. ” I disagree, it is not like 1950s India, it is 1950s India, I know, I have been there, I have been to the India Club. 

Enough said – let’s look around, explore this rare corner of Time that has escaped Death, for now. Let’s get a move-on in case the bell strikes midnight and all we find is another empty Pizza Express next to the empty one that’s next door. 

Time for some mughlai chicken

And so, to the bustling upstairs restaurant. During the day, you can look out through the sash windows onto the Strand at lunchtime, but at night, you are thoroughly protected from 2019 London, the formica tables seem close and more glossy and the yellow walls warmer and more magical.

Tables

This is a Bistro, in the true sense of the word – fast and tasty. Within 20 minutes of ordering our Mughlai chicken and Bhuna lamb with saag dhal, okra, coconut rice, naan and of course popadoms with mango chutney and onion slices – it was there, quickly, with no ceremony, a smile and an answer to my father’s question:

‘How do you make okra at home?’ – to which our white-coated waiter-cook replied – ‘Simple, boil for 4 minutes, add salt and mustard oil, stir and it’s even better if you stir it and smash it like a mashed potato’.

Time-out gives it 4 stars and I whole-stomachly agree. I get the sense that, much like the formica tables, the flavours haven’t changed. And if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

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And thank Shiva the Club has evaded various attempts to ‘bring it up to date’, as William Gould a professor of Indian history at the University of Leeds, who helped to get the Club a “listed building” status. “We are extremely pleased… the Club shouldn’t just be seen as the site of a connection to the Indian League but that it is also of significant cultural importance to the area, and the South Asian community of this country as a whole, and beyond that. ” Indeed the founder of Cobra beer himself Shashi Tharoor, among 26,000  others, is a patron and comrade in the war to save this modest haven of 20th century good will.

 

The other side of Florence

As a student in Bologna I made a few trips to this capital of renaissance opulence, bobbing up for air in cool basilicas before plunging into palazzo after palazzo, packed closely with more art than I could chew in a lifetime, let alone a day, before sinking into a bowl of something starchy somewhere shady, off the deeply beaten tourist track that circles Brunelleschi’s egg-topped duomo.

Now in my 33rd July, I’m pleased to be back in Florence with a little more time. I recommend you give Florence at least 3 days – enough to let it introduce itself to you in its own time. I’m not one for these prescribed “36 hours in” tours, which tie you to your map and your intention on getting there, missing the joys of happenstance. Cities like Florence, with so much to see and eat everywhere, are designed to be eaten whole, from seed to peel.

My favourite quarter is on the other side if the river,  L’Oltrano, across the river from the Uffizi and duomo , near the miles of box hedges in the Boboli gardens. Here, on the other side, is space and peace broken only by mouthwatering artisanal markets and brilliant buskers . Also, in seeming homage to the statue of Abundance (L’Abbondanza) that surveys this quarter from the top of the Boboli estate , there’s not a street or piazza without a place to feast on beef and udon-like ‘pici’, gnocchi, bean stew, wild boar and all manner of Tuscan treats, finished off with a basket of edifying almond-packed Cantuccini biscuits steeped in soul-affirming Vin Santo.

 

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Where was I? Ah si si, the other side of Florence’s  river Arno, bridged by the ancient, tourist-heavy jewellery arcade that is the Ponte Vecchio, joint equal with Venice’s Rialto, the most touristed bridge in Europe and possibly the world. As if by magic the tourist flow dissipates once you cross over, with the duomo behind you, as the Oltrarno’s network of clear streets welcomes you into its confidence. 

Here you’ll find a couple of palazzos now turned into public museums and art collections,  time capsules created by the 18th and 19th century aristocratic ‘grand’ tourists and later “cognoscenti”. Here you’ll also find the piazzas of Santas Spirito and Croce. The former is perhaps my favourite square in Florence. Its beauty is not it’s ornate medieval-renaissance architecture, that forms merely the stage – it’s the players: Florentines, students, immigrants, all milling about, lining the long steps outside the Basilica of Santo Spirito, letting the stirring of the busking dancers and musicians fan their ‘discorsi’ in the gently simmering dusk.

 

Santo Spirito

 There’s a 15th century convent on this square that the Catholic church have obligingly allowed to become a lovely hotel, each room blessed with its own character and heavenly views over the city. There’s one with a bathroom that looks like there’s a romantic painting of the cathedral on the wall, until you realise it’s actually a window with the best view in Florence. I’ll never forget having a shower, looking out into this with the evening sun and breeze flowing through the window, mingling with the smell of gorgeously cheesy opera music wafting up from the Piazza below.

Room with a view

Hopelessly sentimental I know, but Italy does this to you, it’s very hard not to be lost in ‘sentimentalità’ here. I have a friend who is one of the rare breed of non-Italians who have managed to penetrate the impenetrable ancient world of the Florentine artisan. What I wouldn’t give to have a little garret  in Piazza Santo Spirito and have a pastry and espresso under the trees before making my way to my cave-like workshop in a dusty side-street to work diligently and thoughtfully on an altar piece or a memorial stone of pietra dura, carving different stones into animals and crests and flowers before stopping for a beautifully simple lunch somewhere delicious and affordable

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But back to reality and London frenzy we Londoners must go, thanking Italy for yet another beautiful city of art, love and of course, food. Here are some of the places I love in Florence. If you spot them, bene, if you don’t, bene, you will no doubt find your own treasures. The only thing I would recommend above all, is to stay in the converted covent in Piazza Santo Spirito, formerly known as Convent of the Sorelle Bandini (Bandini Sisters), now Hotel Palazzo Guadagni.

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How to survive the Roman rat-race and open Heaven’s gates before lunch

If you are going to Rome to escape the daily grind of commuter overcrowding, don’t set out for the Vatican.

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Never was there such an economy built on subsidized queue-skipping. And once you are in, there is no turning back. You must go with the flow of 25,000 tourist and pilgrim rats that run their trainer tracks through the Vatican every day. After all that queuing, it does feel like a race to make up for lost time. No-one stops to look at anything, the modern art display glides by in a  Sistine-hungry haze; eyes and bellies craving the long awaited micheangelan feast ahead.

And when you get there? Police not priests, and much firefighting of illegal android flashing. The police, in riot-managing mode, hurling riot-squad voices across the ‘chapel’ make you forget where you are and forget to look up, as they urge you to “keep moving”. There’s the sense that it wouldn’t be Christian to linger any length of time, that you are taking up scarce standing space for the next rat-batch to swell into.

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Guided tours can short-cut to the cathedral but humble individuals must power on through the halls of relics (if lined up, they’d stretch for 9 miles). However interesting they might have been to our un-queued selves, they can’t compete with the currents that pulls us all: the prospect of food or at least a moment of sitting down on a non-stoop modern Italian loo. Phew! Will have to Google Sistine-chapel and look at God and Adam’s garishly restored sinews from the time and comfort of my London broadband sofa…

But it’s not over yet, we still had Heaven’s gates to open, before lunch.

St Peter’s Basilica

Having paid to skip the queue for St Peter’s we found ourselves queuing in the queue for the paid-to-skip-the-queuers.

Then we paid some more to take the elevator and skip 500 steps to God and the top of St Peter’s, the world’s highest, largest stone dome.

With no expectation, only that tourist-tick-box feeling that we must reach the end of the last queue, whatever the cost, wherever it led, we were struck, as we came out onto the dome’s inner ledge, by a throat-tickling, eye-stinging awe.

The majesty of the sheer drop beneath and the arc above are enough to make even the most atheist of spines tingle. So many thousands of square feat of marble hosting so much space for thought and prayer and song.

Saint Peter’s is like a mountain. Humbling, terrifying, and yet intensely liberating and peaceful. Truly as close to a house for God as we humans can make. And, as a non-Catholic agnostic yoga, humanist-leaning type, I can say I’m unbiased.

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And so, after all this terrific peace and splendour, you’ll need something warm to bring you  back down to earth. Here’s where the Vatican’s canniest rats find the best crumbs:

Perdincibacco – pizza, spaghetti – simple, subtle yet traditional, bicycles hanging on the ceiling, wine lining the walls, you can sit outside if you don’t mind being in the traffic scooting round the Vatican. Via Delle Fornaci, 5/9 San Pietro.

More tasty morsels:

Near the Trevi and Pantheon

Za Za Pizzaorganic sourdough, charged by weight unusual twists like salmon + pots + mascarpone –  I was highly suspicious but quite possibly these bites were the best pizza moments of my life to date. Note that it’s no frills, just pure pizza  –  outside on plastic chairs in the pretty square. Piazza di Sant’Eustachio 49

On and near the Island

Tiberino –  cat’s tongue biscuits (like anorexic shortbread) and coffee or some homemade gnocchi, if it’s close to mealtime and you fancy being tucked away in the old attic by the bridge – better in colder weather. Via Ponte Quattro Capi 18

La Gensola  – sea-bass tortellini, fresh anchovies, tart lemon sorbet, fish is the thing here as you sit overlooked cartoon-doodled table-coths hanging on the wall , drawn by former patrons, well oiled with the excellent wine. Piazza della Gensola 15

Near the Circus Maximus

(and that stone face, the Bocca della Verita that thousands queue to touch, thanks to Audrey, Anita and Brigitte)

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Volpetti –  best tonarelli (the Roman lovechild of tagliatelle and spaghetti) and anything you like from the sister deli (rated by Guardian as one of Rome’s 10 best delis).  Via Marmorata 47

Gelateria ai Cerchi – nice selection, nutty flavours are best, all good for gearing up for a ‘giro’ round the circus maximus.. or a queue to stick your hand in the old Bocca della Verita.. Via dei Cerchi, 61

Near the Botanical Gardens and Trastevere ( if you fancy a bit of peace and quiet)

 Da Gildo – woodfired pizza, homemade pasta, seasonal veg and  the best tiramisu of all time. Via Della Scala, 31/A

Where I’d try next

At least 3 of these 9 pasta places

Where I’d stay again

VOI Donna Camilla Savelli 

 – especially in Spring, when the magnolias and camellias deck the courtyard, a haven of 17th century ex-convent bliss with a breakfast that would have have had nuns confessing to the 2nd deadly sin every morning…

Taking my mind off to La Gomera

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After a week spent in the Canaries, at La Finca eco-retreat on the verdent island of La Gomera, I find I’m relaxed, happy and well nourished. The only images I have been exposed to have been 100% natural, organic, no added flavours or colourings.

My eyes have been feeding on a natural diet of flora, fauna, sea, sky and the odd statue, here and there.  I have drawn some pictures – a Whale, a tree, two Buddhas, some leaves, a frog playing a violin, some pond fish, a dolphin.

I have not been force-fed 200 marketing messages every hour, not mentally farting away my afternoons, as glossy mags,news, tweets, posts, ferment in my bloated brain.

On La Gomera I was free of this uninvited eye food, free to walk lighly without the constant call to eat or save or recycle or compost what I’d seen. I wonder if app developers have already come up with a mind-watchers programme, like weight watchers, complete with its own fit-bit that tracks how many visual calories you’ve consumed, giving tips for cutting down and making what’s seen and read less fattening and flatulence inducing…

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Back in London, this app, in analogue, would simply be a pair of human blinkers that would filter  ads on the escalator and other periphery visual onslaughts we unknowingly consume while on the go.

These human blinkers would probably have a company behind them: ‘BlinkedIn’. People could sign on to connect with like-minded BlinkedIners or BlinkInIdiots and share lots of images of what blank things you haven’t blinked@ that day 😉  #BlinkBlank

No doubt you’re already aware of the mushrooming ecosystem of ‘switch it off’ apps and new ‘old skool’ devices designed to cut down on sensory overload. But this is not just a tech problem. It cannot be switched off through an app or a device.

Its branches reach offline. It’s billboards, it’s newspapers, it’s endless supplements within supplements in the Sunday and Saturday news. It’s magazines, its more box sets and more telly and more sport everywhere, in the corners and centres and sides of our eyes, all the time.

In one 45-minute journey, the average London commuter is exposed to more than 130 adverts, featuring more than 80 different products. Only half of that information makes any impact, while unprompted we can remember none of the blur of adverts. In an entire day, we’re likely to see 3,500 marketing messages (Source: Guardian)

I’m not saying that we don’t need and like and even love some and/ all of these things, even some ads. I’m just repeating the ancient Greek maxim that still seems to stand the test of time ‘meden agan’ (μηδὲν ἄγαν) – ‘Anything in excess is too much’. We must be more aware. We must pay more attention to things, one at a time. Our brains, under the strain of sensory overload, start to shut down to conserve battery power, in self-defence, as any sensible computer would. This shutting down amounts to a growing inertia, disconnection from ourselves and what really makes us tick, both physically and mentally.

After just a week of so called ‘disconnection’ i.e. no wifi, no city, no TV, No news, pure visual detox, I felt completely rebooted and ready to start smaller, healthy doses of meaningful visual connection.  Now I’ve been back ‘in the world’ a week, I’m visually farting already, but my gut is stronger and digestion is, I think, more efficient. My visual blood-sugar is more stable, better able to cope with any force feeding/self-indulgent binging I might do to sweeten up tonight’s commute.

I’d thoroughly recommend a week on La Gomera, one of the quieter, most verdant of the Canaries. And while I’m on the subject of Islands and birds I’d recommend devoting some precious attention to ‘The Island‘ by Aldous Huxley, if you need a healthy complement to watching the flora, fauna sea and sky….

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Some final links, if you fancy risking more information overload…

Where to stay  – La Finca Argayall’s ‘ alternative, experimental and experiential community

Article –  how much we involuntarily see..

Article –  how our visual bellies are getting bigger and bigger

Article – 5 apps that switch you off

Hurricane hardened Havana

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Hurricane Mathew’s recent Cuban rampage made me think back to February 2009, when I visited in the wake of hurricane’s Ike and Gustav.

I had just finished a TEFL course and Googled, ‘volunteering’. ‘Three weeks teaching English in Havana’ came up. I pictured creaky pianos on dusty verandas and old Cadillacs wheezing on shampoo. I was curious to see if the clichés were true, see what was really left.

The location was central Havana, I didn’t need to drive, and I could use my new TEFL skills – no former experience required…

The arrivals conveyor belt was empty and still. Our luggage hadn’t been stolen. It had been hidden. In corners, behind doors, in bins. I found my plastic-wrapped suitcase, conveniently just outside the women’s toilets. It was shaken up, but intact.

The airport staff, bored out of their lively Cuban brains after 5 years of seemingly futile university education, had given we tourist-voyeurs our first taste of Cuban wit.

I am met by my tour guide and find we are taking an exclusive ‘taxi’ that looks like someone’s car, driven by her friend. Not an old Cadillac but the new shiny fruit of last season’s tourist dividend. We arrive at an expensive hotel and make our way to the cool basement whose menu could have been from anywhere in America – hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, ice-cream sodas, club sandwiches, etc. She orders profusely and eats ravenously.

It’s the very beginning of the tourist season and, like many, she’s still haunted by low-season austerity.  I pay for us both, on her recommendation. I would have offered first, had I not been confused by her smart manicured appearance, had I realised where I was – in Cuba, with a Cuban. For any time spent, I felt I was expected to tip, as I would a waiter, for a tasty plate of conversation. It’s not that they didn’t enjoy the exchange, but that’s what it is, an exchange –  Cubans need food and loo-roll and crave treats like a glass of beer once a month, something that the state never supplies, and their wage of £30 a month cannot buy.

The next morning. My first day. My hotel was a high rise 90s eyesore, complete with dusty fake ferns. My room was on the top floor, had cold running water, a fridge that worked well as a tepid storage cupboard and a bird’s eye view across city and sea.

I drank in the hurricane-blistered rooftops, windowless apartment blocks and the seawall called ‘The Malecon’. It draws a grey line between Havana and the rest of the world, curving slightly against every passing wave. At its midpoint, the ‘Hotel Nacional de Cuba’ stands out with the loud confidence of New York in the late 20s, once mafia HQ. Florida might even be visible now from the top suite…

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So, down to my dusty  fern-decked  hotel lobby. I was late. The group was already sitting comfortably. I was the only non-Canadian, the youngest by at least 40 years and the only one, it seemed, not to have retired from head-teaching at a renowned education institution. No doubt my fellow volunteers had all been a punctual 5 to 20 minutes early. Had I missed something on the website? I was obviously not its target group. Anyhow, the Canadian-Cuban company I’d paid had welcomed my sterling with open arms and here I was, with everyone smiling at me with that ‘can do’ magnanimity particular to philanthropic Canadians on volunteering ‘vacation’ in Cuba.

In my mornings I taught at the university. As the sole Brit on the trip, it had been deemed apt for me to take the Anglo Saxon history class, on my own. There was only one book, one physical book, for the class of 60. I knew no more about Anglo Saxon history than that King’s names often ended in ‘red’ and had vague memories of Alfred, whom I confused with King Arthur and the Knights of the round table.  Needless to say the Cubans, as in all other physical and mental respects, gained the upper ground, quizzing me intensely on Anglo Saxon involvement in Byzantine trade routes. My responses were garbled and evasive. Requests for repetition were frequent, “It’s difficult to understand your German accent” they chorused in pitch-perfect Canadian. My Queen’s English was new to them, brought up on a constant maple-barked volunteer stream, with no access to the BBC. Anyhow, without me, books or broadband, it seemed they were managing to quite well.

After a particularly gruelling lecture, I found myself sitting on the steps outside the Law Faculty.  A student walked pointedly up to me and asked me if I was a student. I was shocked. I had been spoken to in Spanish. I had never been mistaken for anything other than a pasty Aryan, in Cuba, or anywhere else.  I said no, carefully. I said I was a teacher, unconvincingly.  I wondered if I had enough Spanish in the tank to carry me through this conversation sprint. I did.

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Soon after, we were in a cafe he claimed had been a favourite of the young Castro. We weren’t paralysed by choice: chicken with rice and or beans. These were delicacies craved by the children I taught in the afternoons. All had chimed “Rice and chicken” in joyous unison to my question “what’s your favourite food?” two mischief-makers daring to add “beans” to the decadence.

It occurred to me, looking around the cafe, opposite this Cuban aqua-physiotherapy student, that I was blending in and not because I was developing a mahoganous Caribbean tan.  My lunch companion was the only Cuban who wasn’t working behind the bar. Customers, as in most ‘Cuban’ bars I visited, were tourists – For Cubans a glass of beer once a month was a treat to be shared, once a month, maybe, between two.

He explained his frustration at being a student of aqua physio with no real access to still water, the pool they practiced in was dry.  I thought of my hotel pool, cracked and economical with chlorine, but full nonetheless. Seemed Havana had two faces, one for me and one for him. After lunch he bid me goodbye politely and returned to his empty pool on a full stomach, hunger abated for another day. I felt regret, perhaps naively, that I had no spare things or money to give him and wondered what he needed.

I later looked back and thought how nice it was that we had managed to have a meal without bartering. My later experiences taught me that everything I was wearing or carrying, down to my bra’s underwire, was on the market, to the highest bidder, and the currency is banter. The sweetest talkers are the best dressed – they can be your best friend in 5 minutes, in any one of the world’s top 5 languages.

One afternoon we had a tour of the university from the head of the law faculty, who carefully stuck to architectural did you knows about the faculty’s buildings and mentioned he had been a translator for Jimmy carter, but was careful not to elucidate. He finished his tour with a plea for toothpaste and loo-roll, he said, since the hurricane, his wife and he struggled for the bare essentials. We were all apologetic that we hadn’t thought to bring any out with us. Some of the Canadians, indeed, studied veterans of former trips, had brought these with them in extra suitcases and distributed them as and when they could.

The next week we visited a hospital where we were told that Venezuelans came to learn to be doctors in exchange for oil. It was like a garden centre, with large glass roofed plants, sourced from all over South America. Cuban scientists are leading the way, our guide informs us, with pioneering research into local sourcing and cheap production of herbal cures and preventions, circumventing costly imports of patented drugs and vaccines.  It sounded utopian, evocative of Huxley’s “The Island” –  One morning, I stumbled into a square with a troop of octogenarian chicas practicing Tai Chi. In my best, newly acquired Canadian-Cubano confidence, I asked, ‘Where are the men?’, ‘Not dead, just lazy” one called out cheerfully, mid flying-crane.

The last morning, my last afternoon in the school. The electricity was off, again. The children’s planned performance ‘to music’, their parting thanks for our teaching, was now a little tricky. Without hiatus, however, their collective Cuban brain shortcut resourcefully to a percussive solution.

Pencils and chair legs doubled as drum sticks. Table, wall and floor morphed into drums. Stamp, click, stamp, click, cluck the tongue, snap the finger. Repeat. All while curling spines and swinging tiny hips. Those who weren’t busy being the band paired up: chiquitos with chiquitas, and moved their toes in sync, like professional, post-pubescent pros. In the audience their parents swayed their approval, in perfect time, smiling with the relaxed futile pride unique to Cubans.

These ‘street’ children were as academic as they were physically adept. Their English already very good, aged 7, they were writing in cursive script that puts Oxbridge graduates to shame. Indeed, between their Cuban teachers and Canadian volunteers, someone was getting something right. As for me, they certainly didn’t need my help when it came to perfecting their Canadian accents or indeed, lifestyle tips. Fuelled by innate rhythm and, arguably, austerity, these children and their, seem happier and healthier than I’d thought possible.

I got the sense that Havana was a party that keeps dancing, challenging the band to play on and on and inviting whoever is listening, to join in, even though the taps have run dry and the night is over. Doubtless things have changed over the past decade. Cubans seem to act quickly with steps as ingenious and spontaneous as the music that fills Havana’s many cracks. Obama came in during the second of my three weeks and already the lightening mood and arrival of some newish looking furniture, suggested change had already begun to seep through. I wonder how resilient this change will be, in the wake of horrendous Mathew.

I have hope, however. Cubans are masters of survival, used to emptying everything and float lightly, like Hemmingway’s Old Man, only to fill up again, and see how much won’t sink them. I hope this resilience sees them through Matthew as it saw them through Ike, Gutav and their predecessors.

One day I would like to go back and mark changes, mourn Cadillacs. See if glassless window holes have been filled and shuttered and Cubans are unhappier or unhealthier, or if they still smile and sway their hips while queuing all afternoon for a single scoop of state-supplied ice-cream.

 

Venice has a mask for every face

In 60 years sea levels will have crept 8 more inches up the Doge’s already stumpy columns. In 60 years, I, on the verge of death, hope to take my zimmer for one last ride up San Marco’s bell-tower lift and survey Venice’s mysterious, sinking glory.

There is nothing wrong with Venice. The stalls teeming with tack only set in relief the sheer beauty of this cunning floating city, scene to so much stinking tilted wonder.

It’s impossible to get lost in Venice. Every track, if you ignore ambiguous signs to the Rialto and San Marco, leads to some new, somehow intended, discovery: a part of Venice meant just for you, at that particular moment.

Lions  lead the way.  Immortalized in stone and bronze, they look down regally from the balconies or, guarding doors, gaze up watchfully. I feel intrusive, cruel and a little scared, as I push one of the many brass doorbells that is also a lion’s tongue.

Image result for Venice, lion doorbell

Having witnessed so much for so long, at such intimately close quarters, Venice and its lions have become somehow animate and wise. Whatever your mood, you feel it is sensed by more than the Venetian authorities’ liberal peppering of CCTV. The ancient canal-veined piazzas are like crafty Venetians, canny as they are charming – they play your mood up or down to suit their whim. You find that one piazza offers sweet antidotes, another plies irresistible corruption, the next lays you bare and leaves you pitifully exposed. And they swing from mood to mood. Today Santo Stefano is expansive, Campo Bandiera e Moro is vacant, San Marco is indecisive.  Tomorrow, the opposite may be true, depending on the light, the fog, your mood and theirs.

This is, I suppose, how we project our thoughts onto our environment at home, but Venice is a city of mirrors and the reflections are clearer, never quite what you expected. No two people or objects ever share the same view.

One day it will all be buried under the sea, like Atlantis.  Maybe a dozen lucky lions will be rescued and revived and speak of their masters.  Men who tricked geology and the waves for 3 millennia. Tricks of bricks and glass-flutes and chandelier-like masks, all continuously and elaborately confessed beside Tintorettos and Titians under precariously high belfries, with here and there a freshly minted icon, for luck and good measure.

I feel privileged to have seen Venice in all its weary decadence, before it puts on the final death mask. A place of constant magic. However old and jaded, it never tells the same story twice. Mother of the Commedia dell’ Arte, it too, is an unscripted drama. The light and sound and smell is forever switching, bringing out something new or secreted, in both itself and its audience. One moment it’s thick and clogging and fools you into thinking you can predict it; the next, it’s free and crisp and glistens anew with a brilliance that strikes fresh awe.

How I hope, beyond hope, that Venice somehow manages to carry on its magic tricks, recklessly ignoring the inevitable swell, facing sea, silt and pestilential swarms of selfie-sticks with its myriad of shimmering masks, grimacing and grinning into eternity!

Image result for commedia dell'arte, mask

 

Where to eat

Dinner/Lunch

Osteria “Al Covo” (interesting twists on traditional favourites – all locally sourced as part of the Italian slow food movement. Known for it’s amazing biodynamic wine list

http://ristorantealcovo.com/   Tel: +39.041.5223812 Castello 3968 Venezia

TAVERNA DEL CAMPIELLO REMER (Venetian classics and nice live jazz music in an old cellar)

SESTIERE CANNAREGIO 5701 Venezia

Osteria “Il Paradiso Perduto” (nice place for lunch – don’t be put off by the multiple translations of the menu for tourists, home-made parpadelle is top notch)

Cannaregio, Fondamenta della Misericordia, 2540 – 30100 Venezia

Gelato:

I’ve tried a lot and this was definitely the best (pistachio actually tastes of pistachio and not just green food-colouring) and in a nice, off the beaten track square, :

Gelateria del Doge  (http://gelateriaildoge.com) Dorsoduro 3058/A, Rio Terà Canal, 30123 Venezia