27 December 2018

My book: Beyond the Wall


My latest book:

Beyond the Wall:

Adventures of a Volkswagen Beetle

Beyond the Iron Curtain



has just been published and is available on all Amazon sites.



Description:

1980: the Cold War between capitalist West and socialist East is in full swing. Tensions are high but, at the academic level, some channels of useful exchange remain open. The author and two classmates would join one such program linking a leading American university and its counterpart in Poland. They travel to Warsaw here by car and, in addition to attending classes, travel far and wide within the country as well as to several of the neighbors in the socialist bloc where the Soviet Union called all the shots. They drive across the USSR and visit the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the division of Europe. Throughout, Marco took detailed notes of what they saw and heard.

Almost four decades later, the East-West division of Europe is gone. Marco recently found his diary and decided to publish an expanded version of it. His written notes from 1980 have been enriched with descriptions and analyses of historical events that will help the reader see his personal experience in a more significant cultural, social, political and economic context.

The author hopes this real life story will help younger generations, who did not live through the Cold War, better appreciate the blessing of living in a European continent that is immensely more open, rich and free than it was then.

01 October 2018

National day in Guiyang

Today it's China national day, the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. It is the beginning of one week of celebrations in the whole country.

We take a walk in the Culture Park. Lots of families, and quite a few children, many waving Chinese flags.

We have dinner with family and friends. The main curiosity of the day is pig intestine, at least for me, they are used to it of course. Also duck and melt-in-your-mouth breaded pork cutlets. To finish off the meat dishes, some frogs! Everything delicious!

The men are drinking considerable amounts of distilled alcohol, 4 of them share a bottle. O. empties the bottle into their 4 glasses and then they make various toasts and challenges to each other until it's all gone! (It does not take very long!)

O. says he wants his son to marry a girl who has an older brother so he can protect her. But he wants his daughters to marry men with older sisters who would then help their younger brothers set up their families. It is a bit convoluted but his reasoning has its own logic from a traditional point of view. Good luck! These days Chinese kids find their partners online and I doubt the gender of their siblings is an important part in their decisions.

30 September 2018

Massage and herbal bath

They opened a new massage parlor near home. It is the second branch of a company we tried last year. They offer a broad series of treatments, they sell beauty products and they complement it all with a herbal bath in a hot water tub.

It is located on 12th floor of an apartment building that includes lots of modern shops and, at the ground floor, one of the biggest supermarkets in town.

I am surprised to see this kind of service in a town at Guiyang's stage of development. Is it a sign of gentrification in the area?

The masseuses are all ladies, no masseurs. There are several rooms, each with one or two massage beds and, in an en-suite bathroom, a wooden tub. The tub is lined with a thin transparent film and filled with hot water. A bag of herbs is sunk into the water an hour or so before the treatment so as to diffuse its scent through the water and the whole bathroom.

Before the treatment they offer tea. The masseuses are mostly little skinny girls but they are very strong. They massage especially hard massage at the base of my skull, which is a bit painful but I can feel the muscles and joints enjoying it.

At the end I feel great my joints are smooth, my muscles relaxed and a big red area on my back, along my upper back, demonstrates the energy the little girl has put in her hands as they pressed and slid along my spine.

More tea is provided at the end of a blissful hour and a half of treatment.

As I leave my masseuse and two others escort me to the elevator, I thanked them and asked if they were hungry for lunch now and they nodded in unison, and wave goodbye.

The subscription for this parlor is 3988 Rmb for 20 treatments no expiration date. It is not cheap, actually very expensive for local salaries (about two months' wages of a waiter) but they are in business and expanding, and there are no tourists in the city, so the only explanation is that there is a growing middle class who is eager to use this kind of services!

27 September 2018

Grey day and wedding

Grey day at home working on the English edition of my Maldives book.

Mother in law and niece went to a wedding of some neighbors from Yan Jia village who are throwing a party in Chenzhou.

We had decided to go for lunch to a Korean restaurant in town, one of many new restaurants with foreign food which are open for business trying to attract the up and coming local middle class. Been there before, but would love to go again, look forward to some different kind of food. However, the clouds and especially the cold drizzle eventually act as a powerful deterrent and we decide to stay home.

Mother comes back with plastic bags full of of food, left overs from banquet: fruits sweets even a half kilo or so of delicious spicy prawns. It's the custom here: invitees to wedding receptions take home their share of leftovers. She said they took away the least compared to everyone else at the party. Some parents unabashedly tell their children to grab as much as possible as fast as possible!

23 September 2018

Market n. 2 in Guiyang

Morning to buy food for the lanterns day celebrations at Market n.2, just a kilometer or so from home.

On the way I cross paths with a lady who is carrying a balancing basket. She is collecting paper and plastic bottles to sell back to commercial recycling companies, apparently a common activity here.

Lots of sellers of ducks line up the streets today, it is the traditional moon festival meal. All the ducks, of course, are sold alive and kicking in their reed baskets.

One lady buys a duck but she does not trust the seller's scale, so she grabs her animal  and asks the next seller down the sidewalk to weigh it, not sure how it turned out but she bought the duck, 30 Rmb, about 4 euro.

The market is very busy, meat fish (always alive in water tanks) veggies of all kinds. Large quarters of cows are hanging from the roof of the covered market, and the butcher slices off any cut and size his clients require. On one side, a man with a grinder produces the typical spicy chili paste that is so common in Hunan cuisine.

As I snap away a policeman approaches me and Lifang and explains he doesn't want me to take pictures of his police car, which I haven't done and have no interest in doing anyway.

 A little girl drinks fresh juice out of a plastic cup then throws cup on ground, I pick it up and try to show her to hold on to it until she can put it in a bin but her mother takes it from her and shows her how to throw it... on the ground! I give up.

At home mother in law has bought a duck, which is swiftly slaughtered in the bathroom, fairly quickly and effortlessly. The blood flowing from the neck is collected to make bean curd and then used in a soup. It's very delicious!

22 September 2018

Train from Hangzhou to Chenzhou

Grey sky drizzling. We pack our stuff check out of the hotel and are off to station with an ever reliable didi car.

At the station we are welcomed by a very crowded waiting hall, lots of people going home for the mid-autumn day celebrations.

Lifang goes to get the tickets she has booked online while I wait in line to check-in. I've got all our suitcases and proceed with some difficulty. It's all the more difficult because the wheels of one suitcase are broken, so I have to drag it. But instead of helping me people try to jump the queue and get ahead of me. I manage to keep them behind me and make slow progress.

When she's back we go through to the waiting room a huge hall with thousands of people waiting for their train. From here batches of  travelers are admitted to the platform in the order of departure of their train.

Lifang manages to buy some bananas and processed duck meat for the trip, we've skipped lunch after all. I like the boneless duck bums especially!

The station is quite impressive. Electronic boards show the next 3 or 4 departing trains: red letters and numbers when you need to wait, yellow when you need to get ready and green when the gates (which look like those at the London subway) are open. We slip our tickets through and take the escalator down to the platform.

Then it's time to take position at the color-coded marks on the ground which indicate where each car will stop.

When the train arrives and stops with millimetric precision where it is supposed to stop I'm pleasantly surprised to see departing passengers patiently let arriving travelers off the train first!

We board and struggle to find a place to put our luggage, the aisle is so crowded.

We're off at 300+kmh through Zhejiang province toward Hunan. We barrel through fields of farms, many towns and cities where modern tall and thin residential buildings contrast with old traditional houses.

Too many screaming Chinese children on train, parents could do better to calm them down. Or not. Half the passengers are listening to their favorite TV program or playing a video game online, and not one of them is using earphones. the result is a somewhat less than enjoyable persistent monotonous and loud cacophony.

Once we get to Chenzhou we need a taxi (or Didi) to Guiyang. There is a taxi stand by the station, the fare is 100 Rmb. We try and get something cheaper but end up wasting time with an unofficial taxi before calling a Didi and getting home for dinner! Lesson learned: you may save a few Rmb by using unofficial and/or pooled transportation, but it's probably not worth the hassle!

21 September 2018

Temples in Hangzhou

After breakfast we take a trusted Didi car to the old city street, then walk up to the Dongyue temple. As soon as we arrived and walked inside the temple it started pouring cat and dogs. Not so convenient for walking around but it made for a picturesque scenery and it cooled down the air.

Three ladies are silently practicing tachi by entrance to the temple, completely oblivious to our presence.

The temple is from the Song dynasty and it contains Tao figures from before tang dynasty as well as big paintings celebrating inauguration of an emperor of the dynasty. We spend quite a bit of time looking at pictures for details. These celebrations lasted 67 days and cost 8 million yuan which at the time was an enormous amount of money.

The highlight of the day is our visit to the temple of the Soul's Retreat. It is a huge complex of several temples. As we walk in past the electronic ticket check we are greeted by a long series of Buddhas carved in the stone of the adjacent hills.

In the first temple a couple paid the monks to get their blessing. It was not their wedding, that had been done before, but a kind of enactment of a ceremony that to my untrained eye looked like a wedding. The groom is dressed very casually, just a cheap t-shirt really, while she is a little bit more elegant, but still no wedding attire of any kind. The monks, some thirty of them, gather at one corner of the temple and recite their mantras while the couple make an offer to a small altar lit by a few candles.

They then move to centerstage for more blessings and some drum playing by the monks.

We finally go outside with them and place incense sticks in a large bronze cauldron by the back door.

We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the huge complex. I can't see any foreign tourist, though there are many Chinese visitors, including quite a few pilgrims.

In one building we find a traditional writing desk with brushed and ink for people to try their calligraphy. More interestingly, there is a set of traditional robes and hats, for man and woman, for any one to try on for free. There is no one to be seen so my wife and I take our turns at dressing up and posing as a traditional Song dynasty family!

Dinner is back at Grandma, this time we share a table with a couple of middle-aged and rather large Chinese guys who keep ordering more food than they can possibly ingest. That seems to be a recurring trait in upscale restaurants in China. Maybe they do it to show off, I am not sure. Maybe the sudden abundance of wealth and food over the last few years still needs to be matched with a culture of avoiding waste.

19 September 2018

Hangzhou: Confucius temple and pork intestine

Large temple dedicated to Confucius near our hotel. I am almost the only visitor or maybe just three or four couples share the quiet air conditioned rooms and courtyards with me

There is a large collection of Stèles inscribed with figures of wise men and confucian texts. Many have been heavily damaged over the centuries but have now been meticulously restored and preserved. A serene place that I am sorry to leave.

I reflect how this is in stark contrast with the way that treasures were treated in recent past when doing the cultural revolution the red the guards destroyed with abandon anything that had to do with ancient Chinese culture.

Later took a walk around the west lake shore. I sat down and absorbed the landscape on a bench by the water. Lots of Chinese tourists and and all the German or French here and there. it is very hot and humid otherwise I would have taken a ride on one of the gondolas that ferry tourists around the lake.

I have lunch at the Grandma restaurant, which served all kinds of enticing food whose pictures were printed on a large menu together with the English translation . Today I went for green peas and braised intestine of pig. Peas are not that different from how we would prepare them in Italy, sweet tendency. Intestine is tender, a tad on the rubbery side but not chewy. It melts well in the mouth with minimal effort.

When I was finished the waiter presented the alipay barcode to me to pay electronically which however I could not do it. I am not allowed to open an Alipay account without a Chinese identification. I will have to look more into it as I have seen Alipay used outside China. So I have to pay with cash which made me look very much XIX century. Everybody else paid with their phones. I am not sure they even take credit cards I haven't seen anybody using credit cards in China these days except perhaps at big hotels. It seems China has leapt forward from cash to electronic payments via mobile telephone, largely skipping the credit card era together.

After lunch I walked around a bit more and then made it back to my hotel just in time before the heavens opened up and a heavy downpour put an end to my explorations for the day.

30 August 2018

An afternoon in Napan Yaur village in West Papua

Today, between dives, we visited the Napan Yaur village in Indonesian West Papua. As our outboard approached the beach for a wet landing, a couple of dozen children or so started to group on a wooden bench, under a tree. When we got close enough, our wet feet covered with sand, they started to sing some welcome songs for us. It was a highlight of the day, for them and for us.

Some young men were playing  volleyball a few meters away and they did not pay any attention to us.

There were many more children running around the village. Thanks to the translation help offered by Simone, our Brazilian dive guide who spoke some Indonesian, we learned from a local woman that the village's families, on average, have between eight and ten children ach.e

I roamed around a bit and ran into a school, where the blackboard indicated the pupils were learning English and French.

All around were tidy gardens full of pretty flowers. Most homes had chicken and dogs playing in the yard, though, when asked, they said they do not eat the dogs. No pigs, which I thought unusual as pork is a staple food here, but they told us they prefer to hunt wild boars in the surrounding mountains covered with thick rainforest.


26 July 2018

Book review: The Judgement of Paris (2005) by G. Teber, *****

Synopsis

The Judgement of Paris was a blind tasting that pitched American wines from California against French reds from Bordeaux and whites from Burgundy. The name is a play on the "Judgement of Paris" in Greek mythology.

The author was the only reporter present at the mythic Paris Tasting of 1976—a blind tasting where a panel of esteemed French judges chose upstart California wines over France’s best—for the first time introduces the eccentric American winemakers and records the tremendous aftershocks of this historic event that changed forever the world of wine.

The Paris Tasting of 1976 will forever be remembered as the landmark event that transformed the wine industry. At this legendary contest—a blind tasting—a panel of top French wine experts shocked the industry by choosing unknown California wines over France’s best.

George M. Taber, the only reporter present, recounts this seminal contest and its far-reaching effects, focusing on three gifted unknowns behind the winning wines: a college lecturer, a real estate lawyer, and a Yugoslavian immigrant. With unique access to the main players and a contagious passion for his subject, Taber renders this historic event and its tremendous aftershocks—repositioning the industry and sparking a golden age for viticulture across the globe. With an eclectic cast of characters and magnificent settings, Judgment of Paris is an illuminating tale and a story of the entrepreneurial spirit of the new world conquering the old.

Review

The definitive book on this historical event. French wine had been the uncontested world leader until that day, and maybe continued to be the leader, overall, but it was now hotly contested!

Spurrier put Bordeaux vs similar blend Californians, and Burgundy vs Californian Chardonnays. It was initially intended to be a tasting to introduce Californian wines to sceptical French experts, but once everyone was around the table Spurrier told them the real plan: a challenge.

The test was not scientifically exact: more American wines (6) than French wines (4) were included in the sample. And yet, take the whites: every single French judge scored an American chard first.

Another charge was that French wines were too young and would give their best later on in life. But several rematches years later saw the Americans prevail again.

A very detailed book about a pivotal point in wine history.