Thoughts on Perth, WA

I’m now back in France, having arrived yesterday from Perth. As such, I’m trying to shake off the jet lag. Despite having lived in Melbourne I forgot how damned far away Australia is from anywhere. The flight from Perth to Abu Dhabi was over 11 hours; if I’d been asked to guess before booking it I’d have said it was around 6 or 7.

I went to Perth for one reason, and that was to visit people. I’d spent my three months of gardening leave travelling and catching up with pretty much everyone I knew, and with a spare month before my MBA starts I decided I’d take the plunge and go see all the people I know in Perth who I’d not seen in years. If I didn’t do it then, I probably never would. I stayed with a family I knew in Sakhalin, two adults and two girls aged around 6 and 8. They live in Cottesloe not far from the beach, and I had an opportunity to wander around the neighbourhood.

From what I could tell from the very large and expensive houses that dominate that area, Australians are to architecture what Germans are to fine dining. Some houses seemed a combination of several styles, as if the architect couldn’t decide what to go for so just used all his favourite features in a single design. One I saw looked like a British council estate bungalow which had been scaled up three or four times with a porch held up by a row of Greek columns. A lot of them are the ultra-modern box-style, which don’t look too bad in themselves but appear odd beside the old colonial-style houses. Obviously there’s no requirement in Perth for new houses to blend in with the surrounding ones. Some are described as Tuscan-style, and while I can see what they are trying to do they sort of look as though an Australian architect designed it while on the phone to his mate who was looking at a postcard his aunt sent him from Italy. And as I saw in Melbourne and Hobart, over half the houses had tin-roofs. In the UK, corrugated iron is usually reserved for farm buildings and warehouses, but in Perth they’ll build a $3m stone house with a swimming pool and landscaped lawns and finish off the roof, and even sometimes the walls, with the same stuff. Uninsulated. My guess is it was a cheap solution 50 years ago and Australians have simply got used to it.

The beach was nice if a little short of topographical features: no rocky coves here, it was straight beach and sand dunes for a couple of thousand miles in both directions, broken only by the harbour at Fremantle. They’d built a cycle and running path alongside and when I went there on a Saturday morning it was filled with beautiful people in lycra; I’d found the same thing at Melbourne’s tan track. There were also plenty of people surfing and kite-surfing, the water turning turquoise halfway through my trip when summer suddenly arrived making it look very inviting. Up until then it was a brownish colour and choppy. The wind in Perth, coming straight off the ocean, is strong.

I went into the city centre several times to meet people, and I think I’d seen most of it by the first afternoon. The two tallest towers belonged to Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton respectively, letting everyone know why the city is there and who’s in charge. The oil company Woodside moved into a brand new tower when I was there; I suppose it seemed like a good idea back when the oil price was over a hundred. Perth is a town of boom and bust – or rather, one big boom and then a bust – and everyone I spoke to referred to the boom era at least once. The place didn’t look as though it was in a slump though, and it seems to be slowly recovering. I wandered through the shopping district thinking it was a lot like Melbourne (particularly the covered pavements with the perpendicular shop signs hanging perpendicular), and then along Langley Park by the Swan river. It was nice, but perhaps not for the whole afternoon.

Possibly the biggest culture shock I received was when my host family sat down to eat at 6pm. Coming from France, I wondered whether this was a late lunch but it turned out to be dinner. Then at 8:30pm everyone took off to bed, leaving me wandering around in the dark. I awoke the next morning at about 7am and thought I’d get up to say hello to find the parents gone to work and the kids with the au pair getting ready for school. Their father had got up at 5:30am to go surfing, too. Later I was out with a blog reader for a drink and we finished up around 8pm. I walked through deserted streets to the railway station, where I joined about 5 other passengers going in the direction of Fremantle. I think much of this is explained by the fact it gets light at 6am, dark at 6pm, and there is no daylight savings time in Western Australia.

Perth wasn’t as expensive as I was expecting, and much cheaper than Paris for food and booze. One evening I went to a birthday party held at a French restaurant, and found it staffed by French people and the food excellent. Otherwise I was mainly eating decent burgers and the sort of meat-cheese-chips-sauce melanges you only find in Australia. I also ordered a rack of lamb ribs in Fremantle which had been brilliantly marinaded before overcooked.

As in Melbourne, I found the Australians extremely friendly and pleasant to be around, but the place itself rather dull. As my holiday wore on I reached the same conclusion of Perth that I did of Melbourne: if you have a good job, it’s a great place to raise kids. From what I could tell everything worked, it was safe, the weather was great, the schools good, there was plenty of space, and you had everything a family could want or need. But if you were a single bloke I think you’d go a bit nuts after a month; it’s not like you could drink all night if the bars empty at 8pm. Interestingly, I met two foreign wives – one French, the other Russian – and both said they find Perth to be a cultural desert and they’d like their children to spend at least some time back in the motherland before they reach adulthood. Like anywhere, I guess it comes down to what stage your life’s at and what you’re doing with it. So with that, I’ll say I had a great time in Perth and it was absolutely wonderful to see people I’d not seen in years, as well as meet some new people who read this blog. But Perth isn’t a place I’ll be hoping to live in any time soon; I would definitely go back for another visit, though.

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A Middle-Aged Sex Cult

Via commentator David Moore, this:

Koh Phangan is a small tropical island famous for its laid-back hippie vibe, healing workshops and full-moon parties. Cafés serve magic mushroom shakes and detox clinics offer colonics with organic coffee enemas.

The latest toxin that’s being flushed out is not a psychedelic drug, but a so-called “sex cult”.

Agama, one of the world’s largest yoga training centres that was a business magnet on the island for 15 years, is closed as it addresses sexual abuse allegations.

Its guru Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, a Romanian native born as Narcis Tarcau, is understood to have left Koh Pangan.

In July, 31 women publicly alleged sexual abuse at Agama. Fourteen women told the Guardian last week they were sexually assaulted by Tarcau, three of them said they were raped.

Hundreds of Kiwis have passed through the school.

One, a 36-year-old woman, did about 12 months total of yoga teacher training at Agama over five years.

She tells the Herald on Sunday of going to Tarcau’s house for a “healing meditation”.

“Afterwards, he kissed me and started taking off my clothes without asking,” she says.

“There was a lot of pressure for sex, even though I said no.”

She managed to leave before anything happened but what really disturbed her was a senior teacher’s reaction.

“[He said] ‘Like wow, how did you manage to leave without making love.’ I felt really naïve.

“Swami is very aggressive and manipulative. There was all this subtle pressure to sleep with him and other teachers the higher you go in the school. Men are told that women want to be ‘taken’.”

Women were also encouraged to have sex with other women in threesomes “because yin and yin together are good” but gay male sex was not encouraged.

“The brainwashing is subtle but relentless. If unwanted sexual advances or worse happened, and the woman wanted to bring it up, she was told either that she needs to be more open and work on her heart chakra, or that she is attracting this kind of experience. It’s her karma to work through this, especially if it happens more than once.”

A weirdo running a cult and persuading daft women to have sex with him is nothing new, and I imagine such men have existed since the dawn of time. But what differentiates this from, say, the Manson Family is the age of the women: one is 36, another mentioned in the article is 42, another in her 30s. These are not naive teenagers but women approaching middle age, yet some stayed in this place for years. I can’t help but think this Saraswati chap was exploiting the deep insecurity I wrote about here:

For most people, “travelling” – as opposed to simply going on holiday – is something you do in your twenties before settling down into a proper job and/or family life. But for single women, it’s something they do well into middle-age and perhaps beyond, usually going to exotic locations where they talk in lofty terms about spirituality (while scoffing at anything which even hints at formal religion). There must be a pretty big market for this: reasonably wealthy women who have nothing else to do during their annual holidays but jet off somewhere exotic for a few weeks or months of “finding themselves”. I don’t think they’re going abroad to get laid, but they do seem a bit lost, as if going to a nice location will help fill the gigantic hole in their lives back home.

In short, there is very little in this story – not the location, the retreat’s claimed purpose, the cult leader, the profile of the women who attended, nor what took place – which I find very surprising. I’m half-minded to think the reputation of the centre was well known and that served as an attraction, to some women at least.

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Portugal, Jobs, and Banks

I’m back from Portugal, where I spent almost the entire time in dingy bars watching the world cup and drinking heavily with an American mate, joined briefly by a Venezuelan ex-colleague who happened to be transiting in Lisbon airport on his way back to Angola. I saw a tiny bit of Porto and nothing at all of Lisbon, which made me rather glad I’d been there before. That said, I had a great time: catching up with friends and getting drunk in foreign countries is as good a holiday as any, even if it could just as well take place in your basement. The first thing I’ll do today is eat a vegetable: I don’t think I saw one the whole time I was there. I consumed copious amounts of pork, bacon, sausage, potato, and grease though. I was also offered, quite brazenly, all manner of illegal drugs in the street of Lisbon, something which didn’t happen last time.

Anyway, this morning I found this on my Twitter feed:

It’s the second story I find interesting. Leaving aside the high probability that not a single person working at The Times knows the first thing about fruit picking and they’re likely just repeating whatever they’ve been told, since when was a job being fun a requirement to taking one? It’s little wonder we rely on foreigners to pick fruit if the local youth are permitted to refuse jobs and collect welfare because the work being offered isn’t fun enough for them. Perhaps The Times, rather than engaging in Brexiit scaremongering, could have gone into the reasons behind this extraordinary sense of entitlement in today’s unemployed and reflected on their role in supporting the various governments under whose watch it developed.

Incidentally, the chap I was drinking with in Portugal works in banking and, according to him, the giant American banks are shifting thousands of jobs from London to Paris. I asked how they’d cope with the unions and labour laws, and he said they’ve done their homework and they’re simply not going to deal with the unions. If they run into any labour disputes, they’ll simply up and leave. I have every reason to believe what my friend says is accurate, but I suspect these banks have been lured in with promises of special dispensation and once they’re installed the reality is going to hit them right between the eyes. I wonder how long it will be before the CEO of an American bank realises by law he must form a work council:

Any company with at least 50 employees must set up a works council (CE). This committee is composed of representatives of the staff and trade unions, with a mandate of 4 years maximum. It is chaired by the employer. It has economic, social and cultural attributes. To carry out its missions, it has hours of delegation.

We’re not in London any more, Toto.

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A Grisly End

Another reader alerts me to this story, presumably so I continue this week’s theme of middle-aged women travelling to exotic shores:

A woman who travelled to India to treat her depression was drugged, raped and beheaded before her body was found hung upside down in a forest.

Liga Skromane, 33, who is Latvian but was living in Dublin, Ireland, for the past five years with her partner, arrived in Kerala with her sister in February.

She was hoping to be treated at one of the ayurvedic centres the area is famous for, according to NDTV.

So she went with her sister.

But she went missing a few weeks after arriving in the country after leaving the centre to visit a beach.

Her decomposing body was found near a mangrove forest in Thiruvallam on April 21.

Which has me wondering where the sister was. Unless the beach was very close by, you’d have thought the two of them would have gone together.

Two suspects are in custody. They are drug peddlers and one is a repeat offender with a history of sexually abusing men and women in the area where Ms Skromane’s body was found, sources told NDTV.

Police said the victim’s post-mortem examination didn’t reveal much because of how decomposed her body was.

However, they were able to determine that she was given drugs and assaulted before being strangled to death.

I don’t know what to make of this, other than two women went to a dangerous foreign place, and one went off on her own to find a beach and wound up being killed. Common sense seems to have been in short supply, especially considering the presence of drugs in the story and that the victim was suffering depression. There’s probably a bit more to this story, but I doubt we’ll ever know it.

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Ignorance and racism working in both directions

A reader alerts me to another BBC story on race which reveals more than it’s supposed to:

Ashley Butterfield, 31, has been around the world – but a visit to India brought home the particular challenges of being a lone black female tourist.

“Are blacks better in bed because of genetics or diet?” the middle-aged Indian restaurant owner asked me earnestly as I finished the dinner he had prepared.

Once I fell asleep on a bus in north India and woke up to a man, inches away from me, videoing me on his phone.

“What are you doing?” I asked, alarmed.

He simply replied: “Instagram.”

In Udaipur, a man approached me in a restaurant and kept telling me how much he loved black people. Then he started making comments that were sexual.

It might come as a surprise to those who think contemporary Britain or Trump’s America is just one more vote away from bringing back slavery, but most of the world is pretty un-woke. If you want to visit the least racist society on earth, go to Britain; if you want to find the world’s least racist city, go to London. However bad it is, everywhere else is worse.

Following a gruelling screening process, I was selected for a two-year position in Africa with the Peace Corps – a competitive international volunteer programme run by the US government.

A black American goes to Africa for the first time. This’ll be good.

Prior to Swaziland, my impressions of Africa, and indeed Africans, had been shaped by movies, National Geographic magazines and the Discovery Channel. At that time, the people displayed through those media outlets were often depicted wearing bright tribal clothes that left them partially nude, they hunted animals with spears and waged tribal wars often, and they sat on dusty floors in mud huts while cooking things in clay pots. Their lives seemed so exotic, so other worldly.

Kinda just as well it’s not a white guy saying this, isn’t it?

However, in Swaziland, I found the people and their activities to be quite familiar- so much so that I often grew bored. Yes, there are cultural differences, including cultural events that are unique to the region, but the day to day life of a Swazi closely mirrors that of those in the Western world.

Swazis are normal people with normal worries – people who think about school, getting to work on time, music, relationships and popular culture like everyone else.

Africans are normal and not running around naked chucking spears at one another? Who knew? Had she visited Lagos she’d have found the most popular choice of attire for young males is outdated premier league shirts, not leopardskins.

More importantly, through it all everyone manages to stay fully clothed and the spears stay tucked away. I wondered why this side of Africa was never shown.

Did you try watching the news? Or did you think The Lion King was a documentary?

But the biggest surprise was how I was treated. It wasn’t a warm embrace.

They were shocked. Just like I had images of what a typical African should be, they too had an image of a typical American. And that was not a 22-year-old black woman.

To them, I was a fake American. Some even suggested that I was a spy from an English-speaking African country.

Ahahahah! Africans are not by virtue of their skin colour immune from racially stereotyping people, you know?

In addition to black volunteers, Asian, Latino, and Native American volunteers are sometimes greeted by disappointed community members who assumed that they would look different – that they would be white.

Time to develop race awareness programs aimed at making Africans more receptive to black people.

Seven weeks ago I landed in Delhi. The first thing I noticed were a lot of dogs, trash everywhere, a lot of noise, and a lot of people. This was truly a whole new world.

She’d obviously not been to New York.

By the second day I started to find the experience unsettling. I noticed as I walked through the streets, people began pointing, laughing and running away from me.

I’ve heard this happening to black people in China, although that was some time ago. This is unpleasant, but it’s born of ignorance through unfamiliarity rather than malice. When I was in Vietnam some toddlers thought I – being over six-feet tall, white, and hairy – was some sort of walking tree, much to the mortification of their parents. A blonde lady I know told me people were always trying to touch her hair in rural China, absolutely fascinated. And I’ve seen a wonderful video of a Malaysian toddler in Angola surrounded by little black kids who’ve never seen anything quite like him in their lives.

I had been travelling around Asia since August 2017. Like many tourists venturing into communities lacking diversity, I’ve been used to being stared at, but the attention I received in India felt different.

The looks didn’t seem like expressions of curiosity. They seemed sinister and unwelcoming. When people (young and old) see someone with black skin they stare, point, laugh, make jokes, clear paths, run as if you are chasing them, and fix their face to display an overall look of disgust. Too many people were rude, incredibly childish and treated me poorly. When not being ostracised, I was fetishised.

It’s almost as if western cultures are better at accommodating black people, isn’t it? Which is presumably why outfits like BLM want to destroy it.

One of the most pivotal experiences came when a middle-aged man asked me, innocently, about the sexual prowess of black people.

Where are you getting that information from?” I asked the man calmly.

He said he had seen black women on TV walking around without many clothes on. They were jumping around and seemed to have a lot of stamina, he told me.

He’s been watching Beyonce videos.

He specifically cited the Discovery Channel and porn as his sources.

LOL!

My dream is that in the not-too-distant future people all over the world get so used to seeing black people, especially lone black women travellers, that by the time the Generation Z black women start exploring the world, we won’t be so sensational.

A laudable aim, but I expect Africans dream that one day Americans, who have no excuse for such ignorance, don’t think they run around naked chucking spears at each other. Maybe work on that first, eh?

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Lonely Planet

Over the weekend I was browsing through Instagram and a suggestion popped up, probably based on an email or old phone number I have somewhere on my phone. I still get my maid in Nigeria appearing in my Facebook recommendations, which always raises a smile because she’s sat in my old apartment on my sofa with my guitar as a prop. Somehow old numbers and email addresses stay in your phone like Hepatitis C, infecting every app you’ve got on the thing. Anyway, the Instagram suggestion was an American woman I briefly knew in Paris, who I last heard was working a reasonable job in New York a year or two ago. Back then she was in her early thirties and seemingly incapable of holding down a relationship of any kind; a series of brief flings was about all she could manage before things collapsed around her ears, but I’d had no reason to believe she’d not have found anyone in New York in the meantime.

Out of curiosity I clicked through her photos and saw last January she’d taken a leave of absence from her job, dyed her hair turquoise, and spent the next few months travelling alone in Europe and South America. By now she’d be around 34 or 35, and it occurred to me the only people I know who go “travelling” these days are single, middle-aged women. For most people, “travelling” – as opposed to simply going on holiday – is something you do in your twenties before settling down into a proper job and/or family life. But for single women, it’s something they do well into middle-age and perhaps beyond, usually going to exotic locations where they talk in lofty terms about spirituality (while scoffing at anything which even hints at formal religion). There must be a pretty big market for this: reasonably wealthy women who have nothing else to do during their annual holidays but jet off somewhere exotic for a few weeks or months of “finding themselves”. I don’t think they’re going abroad to get laid, but they do seem a bit lost, as if going to a nice location will help fill the gigantic hole in their lives back home. Naturally, every scenic spot must be photographed and uploaded with hashtags such as #girlswhotravel and #somuchfun and everyone assured she’s having an amazing time.

I used to travel a lot – and I mean a lot – but eventually you get tired of it. You quickly realise a million other people have walked this trail before you and, aside from the visuals, your experience is about as authentic as a trip to Disneyland. Yes, I’ve heard the stories of how you “found a guide who took us to a place none of the tourists go” and I don’t believe them, just as you shouldn’t have believed your guide. A week here or there, and a few long weekends, is enough for me these days and most travelling I’ve done in the past few years has been to see people rather than places. Give me a week kicking around a mate’s house somewhere than a month on the Inca trail any day.

I’ve noticed you don’t see many middle-aged men going “travelling”, it’s nearly always women, and always alone. One possible answer for the latter is all their friends are tied-down with family and can’t take the time away, but most middle-aged single women have a whole rugby team who are in the same situation, so why don’t they go in a group? I suspect the reason they go on holiday alone and the reason they are single are one and the same: they’re either nuts or simply not much fun to be around. I can just imagine the bitching and sniping that would ensue if two or three childless middle-aged women went travelling together, it would make the Battle of Monte Cassino seem like a cordial affair. I also suspect turquoise hair beyond age 25 is an indicator of personal issues which no amount of travelling will fix.

Now I might be being a bit unfair; there’s nothing wrong with going travelling after all, at any age. But looking at this woman’s Instagram account, and recalling others like it…well, they seem a bit forced, as if they’d rather be sharing the experience with someone, or doing something else altogether. A few women I’ve known have gone travelling following a relationship breakup, whereas guys tend to do a week or two blow-out then get on with other aspects of their lives, namely their job. Given how much emphasis is put on modern women to devote their lives to a career, it surprises me how many drop the whole thing to go travelling. Men, unless deep in a mid-life crisis, generally don’t do this, probably because they can’t afford it.

As women entering middle-age without partners becomes more common, I expect we’ll see more of this. I’ll keep an eye-out for articles in the usual places.

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Marrakesh

I’m back from Marrakesh, but alas I don’t have much to report. I went there because I fancied a few days in the sun lying by a pool, and that’s how far south I had to fly to find warm weather. I’d have preferred to have gone to Faro in Portugal, but it wasn’t quite warm enough. Nor did I want to take a 6-7 hour flight to the Middle East.

The only thing I did outside the hotel was to wander through some narrow streets into the Jemaa el-Fna square and then back again. Now I’m sure some people would find this lovely, but for me it was a bit meh. Sure, there’s the charm of being in a place with wrecked curbstones, lampposts spewing wires at ankle height with their ends wrapped in insulation tape, and pavements clogged with vendors and people lolling around forcing you to walk in the road where you run the risk of being clattered into by some idiot on a motorbike, but I lived in Lagos for three years which is a world-leader in these categories. Some might like the endless stalls selling tourist junk and mobile phone accessories, and being accosted by hawkers, but whatever curiosity Lagos left me with in that regard was amply satisfied by living in Thailand. And of course there is the Arabic culture with all its swirly writing, ornate coffee pots, and lengthy lines at passport control where the booths are inadequately staffed by people in military uniforms who always appear to be on their first day, taking five minutes to examine each document before hand-typing information into a computer and splodging their stamp in a self-important manner across two valuable blank pages. Yes, I can see why this would appeal to some people but I lived in the Middle East for three years and the novelty wore off and never came back.

That said, the Moroccans are a friendly, helpful bunch – at least the ones working in the hotel were. And they spoke French which was good, because it meant my interactions with them were much the same as they would be in Paris. The weather was good, and the view from my hotel balcony of the Atlas mountains was spectacular. Sadly I didn’t have a decent camera on me and had to rely on my iPhone with its digital zoom.

I’m sure some people would make a far better use of a trip to Marrakesh than I did, but for me it did the job.

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Welcome to Britain

On Friday I flew into Exeter Airport, which is a field with a windsock and a flat-roofed shed serving as a terminal building. You can fly there direct from Paris once per day on a Dash 8 turbo-prop operated by Flybe. It takes just over an hour, and should you want to get from Paris to Exeter, it’s ideal. According to Wikipedia, Flybe is based out of Exeter which surprised me a little. Exeter doesn’t seem the sort of place you’d base anything out of.

Anyway, what struck me as I entered the queue for passport control was the number of posters threatening passengers with prosecution, fines, and jail. There were several of them, each instructing people on what to do and what not to do in the cajoling, hectoring language so beloved of English-speaking authoritarian bodies. Nowhere did I see a sign which suggested people might actually be welcome; perhaps those are only to be found in refugee centres? I would have taken a photo but that, of course, was also forbidden.

These posters appear to me like open sores on the flesh of a badly wounded society, and they really grate. I’ve not noticed them as much abroad, but that could simply be because they’re not in English and so I gloss over them. Australia certainly goes in for over-the-top, nagging signage: there’s one beside the baggage carousel in Melbourne airport warmly greeting passengers by telling them using a mobile phone while waiting for their bags constitutes a criminal offence.

That said, I suppose the welcome visitors to the UK receive in British airports is at least honest: with the country having elected as PM the very embodiment of a threatening, bullying “security” poster at a regional airport, they let everyone know what sort of place they’re entering.

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A Trip to Rome

I confess, I found Rome a lot like Paris only with older ruins. Perhaps it’s me coming from the UK, or my having lived outside Europe for a long time, but the two felt rather similar. Both have world-famous landmarks in their centres; the streets are often narrow and paved with dark grey, square cobblestones many of which are missing; food and drink is a main attraction; the churches, fountains, and obelisks look strikingly similar; the streets are filthy, and many buildings covered in grime; the traffic is bad and parking spaces in short supply; certain areas are thick with tourists and the accompanying band of hawkers, vendors, and pickpockets. Bear in mind I like Paris a lot, so I didn’t think this was a bad thing.

The first sight we visited was the Trevi Fountain, which I’d never heard of. It was sixteen-deep with tourists, half of whom were trying to take my eye-out with selfie-sticks while the other half tossed coins into the water. It was nice enough, but once you’ve been to Peterhof, Baroque fountains never do much for you afterwards. We moved onto the Pantheon, pushed along by the crowd as if entering a football stadium. I hate crowds and I was already getting grumpy. Half the trouble was the pavements are tiny and you have to walk in the road, but nowhere is pedestrianised and you’re in danger of being mown down by a van or scooter at any moment. When Haussmann designed Paris he at least had the good sense to build wide pavements so pedestrians don’t compete for space with garbage trucks. Anyway, the Pantheon was…okay. Then it started to rain and, with bright sunshine forecast the next day, we abandoned the sightseeing and went for dinner.

My companion booked the restaurant, a well-known place popular with tourists that’s been around since 1906. From what I could tell, the Italians eat like this: first you order a plate a metre in diameter covered in cured ham. This they call a starter. Then you eat several kilogrammes of pasta. Then you eat a lump of meat the size of a rugby ball. At no point does a vegetable pass nearby. In case you’re still hungry you eat a tiramasu. I can only assume an Italian dinner lasts between five and eight hours, or they only eat once per week. I chose the cured ham – which was excellent – followed by the carbonara which was the house specialty. They made it slightly differently than I do, i.e. they fucked it up, but it was still very good. Very good.

The next day dawned bright and clear so we went to the top of the Spanish steps and took some photos.

Then we walked along the upper road and dropped down into the Piazza del Popolo, where sits an Egyptian obelisk which used to be in the middle of the Circus Maximus. I looked at this thing and wished that stones could talk. From there we took the metro to the Vatican where I ignored gangs of Indians telling me I was “going the wrong way”, and headed to Saint Peter’s Square. This was a nice spot and big enough that it wasn’t too crowded. However, the line to go inside was several hundred metres long and there was no way I was going to join it so we didn’t actually enter the Vatican proper, hence I missed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As we approached the building with the balcony  where the pope comes and waves at his flock, a dark cloud formed over my companion, who is Turkish. As we got closer, a warning bolt of lightning shot down and landed inches from her feet. Then when we got to the barrier a Swiss guard prodded her with his pike and said “We don’t want your sort ‘ere, now bugger off!” By contrast, I was left well alone (I may be making some of this up).

I was impressed by the Vatican, or what I saw of it from Saint Peter’s square. This was worth a visit.

We then hopped on a bus which took us across the Tiber and on to the Altare della Patria. This colossal monument features an enormous bronze statue of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king who united Italy. Given the size of the thing and the overall monument, you’d have thought he was someone who beat Napolean six-nil over two legs, home and away. This place also serves as the location for the grave of the unknown soldier and the eternal flame.

From there we walked through the Roman Forum, a collection of old ruins which perhaps ought to have done something for me but didn’t, and onto the Colosseum. This was very impressive but as we approached two dozen people of various nationalities came running up:

“Hello! Where are you from? Do you want to go inside? Do you? DO YOU? You can skip the line with me. Bonjour! Do you want to go inside? I can get you inside! Where are you from? Privyet! Do you want to skip the line? You want to go inside?”

This barrage came before I’d even had the slightest chance to look at the outside, and after that I wouldn’t have gone inside even if someone had let slip Maria Sharapova was there in a hot tub with two of her closest friends and wanted me to join them. So instead we took a leisurely stroll around the outside, where I got some nice photos. Like the Vatican, the Colosseum was worth seeing.

That evening we went to a restaurant where I had a very thin pizza covered in lumps of mozzarella cheese and cured ham. I’m assuming this is how pizzas are supposed to be done. Afterwards we went to a bar disguised as a speakeasy – a theme growing in popularity in Rome, I heard – which could easily have been in Paris. The main difference was Rome was much cheaper; visiting other cities makes me realise how ludicrously expensive Paris is for drinks, particularly spirits and cocktails.

The next day we caught a taxi to the airport and underwent a journey quite unlike any other I’d been on. The driver, an Italian in his fifties with a bald head and grey beard, was engaged in a heated discussion on his phone before we’d even pulled away. Often when this happens the driver spends a few more minutes on the phone before hanging up, but not this guy. He seemed to be following up on some sort of business transactions and had a scrap of paper he used as a ledger with various names and numbers on it, and called each one in turn, taking notes using the steering wheel as a desk. And this dickhead didn’t even have a hands-free kit, he either had to hold it or put it in his lap.

He was probably concentrating on the road for a maximum of 20%, which meant he was constantly slamming on the brakes and veering into the hard shoulder. Even when we got to the highway he didn’t change, and the above picture was taken at around 120kph. My friend recorded the videos below:

If I didn’t think this guy would pretend not to understand me, I’d have asked him to stop and concentrate on driving. Not that any of this surprised me: in April this year, Italy banned Uber because it represented “unfair competition” to traditional taxi drivers. Presumably they mean they would no longer be able to engage in unrelated business transactions while driving customers at high speed along the motorway. Of course, there was no point in complaining but had this been Uber the guy would have been out of a job before we’d cleared airport security. Remember this next time some corrupt politician or their lackey declares Uber is unsafe for passengers.

Anyway, Rome was nice and I’m glad I went.

(The full collection of my photos from Rome can be seen here).

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A Weekend in Mykonos

I’m now back in France, redressing the work/life balance that had threatened to tip over to the point Paris Hilton would envy me.

Mykonos was fun, particularly landing on it. The island is frequently exposed to strong winds and our plane, an Airbus A320, was being thrown around all over the place in the final stages of the descent. I’ve rarely felt turbulence this bad and a few passengers around me were looking scared as hell and gripping the armrests. One or two nearby let out little yelps of terror. Occasionally turbulence scares me but this didn’t, and I quite enjoyed it. I reckoned the pilots of this thirty minute shuttle between Athens and Mykonos had done this landing a hundred times in worse winds and we’d be fine, and we were.

I’d been to Greece only once previously, to Rhodes in 1998. Given I stayed in Faliraki I might as well have gone to Essex, but I noticed that the island was made of bare rock with almost no fertile soil and it was scorching hot. The same was true for Mykonos, dry as hell and almost no vegetation save for patches of horrid, spiky plants that even goats would likely avoid. Every building was smothered with concrete painted white like the icing on a Christmas cake to keep the heat out.

I’d gone to meet a Greek-American mate who lives in New York and his cousin who is from Athens. I had little interest in Mykonos itself, but going with semi-locals piqued my interest (plus I wanted to see my mate). The authenticity of my trip is open to debate. Sitting in the back of a car while the driver pays scant attention to the traffic rules is probably pretty Greek. Guzzling bottles of Russki Standardt on the patio of a high-end hotel less so. I discovered that while the Turks make their doners from lamb, the Greeks make their gyros from pork. Much as though I hate to offend any Turks reading this, and I appreciate that I probably haven’t had the best doner kebab (which requires going to Turkey with the complainant and driving six hours to where their grandmother lived and finding the 3-table shack they ate in as a kid), but I found the gyros better simply because of the pork. Crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, in a wrap with onion, sauce, and French fries. And yeah, the Greeks do fantastic French fries too.

The first place I ate a gyro was at a tourist trap and it wasn’t that great, but later I went with my friends, and a Greek lady from Athens, to a “proper” Greek restaurant. There they ordered what we call a Greek salad but they call a village salad (the Turks call it a shepherd’s salad, so we can probably assume this is peasant food). They also ordered kokoretsi, which is:

a dish of the Balkans, Greece, Azerbaijan, Iranian Azerbaijan and Turkey consisting of lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal, including sweetbreads, hearts, lungs, or kidneys, and typically grilled; a variant consists of chopped innards cooked on a griddle.

The Turks have the same thing with almost the same name – kokoreç – which confirmed that the difference between Greek and Turkish food, at least around the Aegean, seems to be slight. Depending on which particular lump of offal you got, it wasn’t bad if a little dry. I preferred the heart to the liver, and I couldn’t identify anything else. The gyros in that place were great, though. I also found a place open at 3am serving huge cardboard boxes full of pork and French fries: I was there 3 nights and I ate 3 of them. Burp!

Both days I was there we went to a beach called Super Paradise Beach. I’m not sure that’s what Alexander the Great would have called it, nor do I think he agreed to pay 25 Euros for a pair of sun-loungers, but he might have thought it spectacular. Alas I didn’t bring my camera, but the sea was a beautiful deep blue that turned to turquoise as the day wore on and the sun moved and the beach was hemmed in my cliffs to form the sort of bay you see in travel brochures. There’s a picture of it here:

Approximately 90% of those on the beach had spent the past 6 months running frantically between the gym and the tattoo parlour. Modern twenty-something men have adopted a look consisting of a chiselled physique, tattoos all over their legs, arms, torsos, and sometimes their necks, hair shaved like something out of Peaky Blinders and bushy beards. They’re basically like hipsters only with muscles, and most of them on this beach appeared to be Italian. Their womenfolk were often highly attractive and wearing skimpy bikini bottoms and sometimes nothing else, but most – and I mean well over 80% – were sporting tattoos of some sort.

We wondered where people like this work – it’s hard to imagine anyone with a neck tattoo, lumberjack beard, and nose ring working in an investment bank – but came up short. I pointed out that damned near every barman and barista I have come across in the past five years in the West, particularly the English-speaking parts, have fitted this description but they can’t all be doing that. Our question was partly answered when one of them expertly braided his friend’s hair in about five minutes flat, but other than hairdressing and serving drinks I have no idea what these thousands of people do that would earn them enough money to come on holiday to Mykonos in peak season. Anyone have any ideas?

I put my toe in the Aegean Sea and found it much colder than expected. For some reason I’d assumed it would be like the Mediterranean but it wasn’t. Later I read that it was very deep (over 3,500m near Crete) and cold water masses from the Black Sea keep the temperatures down. Once you were in it was okay, but don’t go to the Greek islands expecting the Aegean to be like the Andaman Sea.

The place has a reputation as a party town, particularly for gays, but it looked to me more like a destination for couples. Most tourists I saw were Italian, American, and Scandinavians as well as European nationalities I couldn’t place easily. There weren’t many Brits, and I didn’t hear Russian spoken once. I suspect they go somewhere cheaper. Mykonos was expensive, and probably always will be given its popularity, but I did wonder if the lesser-known islands were suffering under the strength of the Euro and would be better off being able to price things in drachmas. The subject of Brexit came up and although the Greeks have their own rather obvious issues with the EU and particularly Germany, they seemed entirely uninterested in Brexit. Like the French I talk to at work, they’ve always seen the Brits as awkward members who were never fully committed and don’t think it makes much difference whether they’re in or out. In short, nobody really cares.

It was a good trip, long enough given there wasn’t much to do but lie on a beach and drink, and well worth doing with a few people who speak Greek and can at least get the orders at the bar right first time. And catching up with old friends is always good.

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