12 December 2014

Film review: Salaam Bombay (1988), by Mira Nair, *****


Mira Nair adds her angry voice to the cinema of forgotten children in this wrenching drama of an 11-year-old boy (real-life street child Shafiq Syed) who heads to the big city and joins a sea of homeless children and down-and-out adults scrambling to survive the pitiless streets. The fantasy of Bollywood dreams hangs just out of reach in posters, movies, and radio tunes, momentary respites from the hard reality of a world ruled by brutal pimps and drug dealers.

This is a gritty look into the underbelly and plight of Bombay's poor street children, who call the gutters of its filthy urban streets home. It is filled with the sights and sounds of this urban nightmare. This highly acclaimed film allows the viewer a peek at another culture, only to find that basic human needs and desires are universal.

This was Nair's first film and one of very few Indian film ever nominated for an Oscar, (the others being Mother India and Lagaan).


Another moving story by Mira Nair. India is changing fast and this is one aspect of the country which neither tourists nor scholars get to see much.

Drugs, prostitution and outrageous neglect of justice by the authorities paint a damning picture of the city we know of as the economic capital of India and home of Bollywood.

Not a pretty film, but, over twenty years after its shooting, still a must see to understand India.

Watch a trailer here

See my other reviews of films about India.

10 December 2014

Film review: Mississippi Masala (1991) by Mira Nair, ****


The story of an Indian family who after always having lived in Uganda, Africa, are forced to leave under the orders of dictator Idi Amin when he declares that Africa belongs only to 'black' Africans. The lawyer, his wife and little girl Mina, move to Mississippi where again, years later, racism presents problems. This time between the Indian and American/African community, coming to a head when the now 24-year-old Mina falls in love with a black carpet cleaner. 'Masala' in the film means a 'mixture of hot spices' which is how Mina sees herself through having come from such a rich mixture of cultural backgrounds.


This is a film about globalization that was shot before people started talking about the term. Indians from Africa move to America to meet descendants of slaves and contribute to the melting pot that makes America great. The plot may not be super original (boy loves girl, girl loves boy, girl's parents are not happy) but the context is. It made me feel of "Guess who is coming to dinner" and it could almost be considered a remake. of course, in a different context and twenty-five years later. But the romance drama intermixed with the racial friction makes it very current and as I watch it in 2014 it is ever so relevant!

See my other reviews of films about India in this blog.

05 December 2014

Gramex, Rogers Hewland's shop of records and CDs in London

With Roger at Gramex, 104 Lower Marsh, London
I am a music collector, and when I travel some of my first destination targets are the music shops I can find in various cities: mostly CDs and LPs, but also books about music and other paraphernalia. So it was a really amazing coincidence that when I moved to a city as big as London I should find one such shops, which turned out to be the best of its kind, just a few steps from my apartment.

As I walked inside, I was struck by the sight of a huge mass of CDs all over the place, but also LPs and 78rpm discs, and even cylinder recordings! The welcoming owner is Roger Hewland but the shop has been running non-stop, at different London locations, since 1906, when a certain George Russell founded the "Music Exchange" in the Islington market. The shop prospered there until 1922, when it moved to Oxford Street, and from there to Wardour Street in 1956.

On Christmas 1978 Gramex was relaunched under its current name at Wardour Street. Roger was running a book shop then, but was in love with music as much or more than with books. When Gramex went bankrupt in 1981 Roger bought the name and started anew in York Road, just next to Waterloo station, where the shop stayed until 1990. He then moved to 84 Lower Marsh and remained there until 1993. The next move took him to number 25 in the same street, where he remained until April 2014, and Gramex is now at 104 Lower Marsh. He has not had a holiday since he opened shop, and greets customers six days a week, 11am to 7pm, every week of the year. He said he will take Saturdays off when he turns 100, in about 18 years' time.

Roger Hewland's ancestors were Huguenots, protestants who fled persecution in France. Huguenots ended up in many places where protestants were accepted. I have met Huguenot descendants as far as South Africa, where they started that country's wine-making tradition. Roger's family crossed over to England in 1712. He has French, Spanish, Italian as well as English blood in his veins. He is a born and bred Londoner, you can certainly tell he is an Englishman from a mile away but he considers himself a member of the European nation. He hated the British Empire but loves the Commonwealth. He believes in the European Union and will vote accordingly when there is a referendum in a few years time. In his shop he accepts Euros as well as pound sterling.

"It's anarchy, not chaos" is one of the first things he told me. "Having all my music in random order makes you find what you did not know you wanted and trigger impulsive buying instincts in the collector. It makes perfect business sense." He also does not like shelves. Most items on sale are on tables and even boxes, but always displayed so you can see the cover. "No point showing a record spine, no one likes those, but collectors like covers." After a few months of frequenting the store, and several hundred CDs in my collection later, I agree.

Roger is a dealer, but first of all a collector. One has to be a collector before one can be a dealer in music, he says. Still today, he does not tire to repeat that the most important part of his job is not selling records, but buying them, and that is what he enjoys the most. "Good records sell themselves" he says "and customer are my staff: they help themselves to the music." Every day collectors bring in records they want to sell and Roger screens them carefully to pick those fit for sale at Gramex. 

He certainly is an experienced collector, and so are most of his clients. He bought his first record in 1948, on 20 October 1948 at 10:32am to be precise, a rainy day in London.  It was a 78rpm version of the Butterfly. He had £200, spent it all on records, does not regret it a bit, and has not stopped since. He now has over 50,000 opera 78s/LPs/CDs/cassettes/cylinders etc in his personal collection at home. He owns 27 editions of Traviata, all those he could find. Bohème and Trovatore are his favorite operas, though under pressure he would admit Beethoven's Fidelio, my favorite, is the greatest opera ever written.  

Originally the shop only dealt with classical music, but when, about twenty years ago, he asked his customers whether they wanted to add jazz, 90% said yes. And so it is jazz and classical now. Joe, a jazz musician, helps with the jazz part of the business. When a jazz collection comes in, the invaluable Joe is called to deliver his judgement! 

Customers also voted against having any music playing in the shop during business hours. So, no Domingo or Callas in the background: now the chatter and banter amongst patrons, as well as the typical London sarcasm at which Roger is a master, are the only sounds that mix with the franctic shuffling of CD cases by avid collectors. However, a headphone is available if you want to listen to a CD before you buy it.

It's more a club than a shop, Roger says. Many of his customers have become friends, and I like to think of myself as belonging to this category. When he was in the hospital for an operation a few years ago they kept the shop open for him!  People are free to use the toilet and the kitchen, where coffee an tea are complimentary. Good English tea for sure, but coffee left a bit to be desired, so I gifted Gramex with a good Italian Moka machine! One more reason because of which, if you love music, you must visit Gramex when in London.

03 December 2014

Book review: River Town (2001), by Peter Hessler, *****


When Peter Hessler went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s, he expected to spend a couple of peaceful years teaching English in the town of Fuling on the Yangtze River. But what he experienced -- the natural beauty, cultural tension, and complex process of understanding that takes place when one is thrust into a radically different society -- surpassed anything he could have imagined. Hessler observes firsthand how major events such as the death of Deng Xiaoping, the return of Hong Kong to the mainland, and the controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam have affected even the people of a remote town like Fuling.


This is a superbly written account by one acute observer of one part of China while the country was undergoing tremendous change in the mid-1990s. One view by one person in one small part of this immense country does not allow a reader to draw more general conclusions. However, the many microstories we read here help a lot in understanding the new (then) China rising from the ashes of maoism. Hessler is curious, even a bit nosy, but always respectful. He learns Chinese and always tries to understand. He questions himself but does not fall into the trap of many travelers who always marvel at what they see and whom they meet, no matter what. He does criticize, with strong arguments, people and practices he meets along the way.

The Yangtse near the Three Gorges
Hessler walks on thinner ice when he addresses more academically charged historical, economic or political issues, but this is not meant to be an academic book. His perceptions of the reality around him, and of how he changes over the years while in China, is what makes this an invaluable read for anyone interested in how China changed during the post-Mao "Reform and Opening" period.

Read my other reviews of books on China here in this blog.

23 November 2014

Film review/recensione: A Walk in the Clouds (1995), by Alfonso Arau, ****

Italian text below


After returning home from the war, Sutton (Keanu Reeves) accepts that his wife has no interest in him or his plans for the future, and sets out in search of a new life on his own. He soon meets up with a vineyard owner's daughter (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), but she finds out she is pregnant and fears for her life when it comes to telling her father. Sutton then agrees to help her by pretending to be her new husband, a decision which will change both of their lives forever.


A film about love: love for a family, a woman (you can see more men loving women, in their own way, than the other way around in this film) but especially love for the land and its wine. Catch the moment, life will offer unexpected treasures if one has the mental predisposition to catch them on the fly! Be ready to change what you planned, don't wait until you must.


Tornato dalla guerra, Paul Sutton, dopo aver riabbracciato la moglie Betty, che per la verità non sembra aver trepidato per lui, visto che non ha letto una sola delle molte lettere inviatele, riprende l'attività di rappresentante di cioccolatini. Una serie di contrattempi fa sì che si ritrovi a "fare" da marito ad una giovane di origine messicana, Victoria Aragon, figlia di un ricco viticoltore delle valle di Napa, che possiede il vigneto modello "Le Nuvole". La giovane, che frequenta l'università in città, aspetta un figlio illegittimo dal suo professore e teme che il padre, Alberto, la uccida.

Accettato il ruolo solo per breve tempo essendo deciso il giorno dopo ad andarsene con una lettera d'addio, Paul incontra subito l'aperta ostilità di Alberto, geloso della figlia e irritato per non essere stato avvertito, ma la simpatia della madre Marie José e soprattutto del nonno, Don Pedro, ritardano la sua partenza. Il rito della vendernmia poi, con il clima bacchico e solare della pigiatura dell'uva, fa perdere quasi la testa a Paul, che decide di rispettare Victoria, pur essendone attratto e ricambiato. Orfano, Paul trova nella famiglia della giovane un rifugio dagli orrori della guerra che ancora lo traumatizzano. Il fatto che i due non dormano insieme insospettisce Alberto che, colpito dalle manifestazioni d'affetto del finto genero per la figlia, decide di farli sposare con rito religioso.

A questo punto Victoria è costretta a dire la verità al padre, mentre Paul a malincuore si allontana per tornare dalla moglie che però, nel frattempo, ha provveduto ad annullare il matrimonio. Libero, il giovane fa ritorno al vigneto, ma trova Alberto ubriaco che si scaglia contro di lui e roteando una lampada a petrolio per colpirlo la lancia nel vigneto, incendiandolo. Vani sono i tentativi per domare le fiamme, poi Paul estirpa la radice, che ha resistito al fuoco, della pianta madre del vigneto, che rivivrà. Alberto fa pace con la figlia e Paul può sposarla accettando di essere un buon padre per il nascituro.


Un film sull'amore. Amore per propria famiglia, la propria donna ma soprattutto per la terra ed il vino. Carpe diem, la vita può offrire inaspettate opportunità a chi ha la disposizione mentale per cogliere l'attimo. Bisogna essere pronti a cambiare i programmi per i quali si è lavorato, anche per anni, quando cambiano le condizioni. Meglio non aspettare di essere obbligati a farlo!

15 November 2014

Film review: Fire (1996), by Deepa Mehta, *****


Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) runs a family business that sells takeout food and which also has a video rental store at the side. Ashok's extended family includes his wife Radha (Shabana Azmi), his brother Jatin (Javed Jaffrey), their ailing mother Biji (Kushal Rekhi) and their manservant Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), all living under the same roof.

Jatin, at the insistence of Ashok and their mother, Biji, agrees to marry the beautiful Sita (Nandita Das) in an arranged marriage, although he is actually in love with Julie (Alice Poon), a Chinese-Indian.

At first glance, you see a happy middle-class family going through the normal paces of everyday life. However, as the layers are slowly peeled back, we find a simmering cauldron of discontent within the family, with almost every family member living a lie. Both marriages in the family turn out to be emotionally empty, without love or passion. While Ashok is an ascetic who has taken a vow of celibacy, Jatin is a handsome ladies' man who is still openly seeing Julie even after his marriage to Sita. Ashok has pledged his total devotion to a religious holy man, a swami, in order to purge his life of worldly desires and temptations. Radha, bound by her sense of duty to her husband, agrees to go along with his wishes.

As you can imagine, with both husbands ignoring their spouses' emotional and sexual needs (albeit with reasons that are totally opposite from each other), it is only a matter of time before Radha and Sita look to one another for comfort and to satisfy their own passions. In this environment, it is only natural that Sita and Radha become fast friends, and, in time, much more than that. But their love is not without its share of painful obstacles.

Major controversy led this movie by Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta  to be widely attacked and banned in India. The film's unprecedented lesbian themes led to riots outside cinemas in India and necessitated police protection for the director for over a year.


A daring movie for India. For any country really, but especially for a country like India where the issue of female homosexuality was a big taboo in the mid-1990s and it still is. We learn a lot about an India which travelers hardly ever read of hear about, let alone see with their own eyes. It is an optimistic movie, in the end the right of the women to pursue their own path to happiness wins the day.

The pace of the movie is deliberate, with no rush and no slack, it is just right. We are taken into the home of a traditional Indian family where the modern lifestyle of one young husband contrasts with the stale tradition of another husband of a generation earlier. Both neglect their women and this brings the two ladies together more than they would ever have planned. It is ultimately a movie about freedom and love, not necessarily a movie about male chauvinism in India.

It is also a movie about changing India: millenary traditions crumble under the impact of modernity, and the movie suggests that this is a necessary transformation for the country.

This movie is one of three sometimes referred to as the "Elements Trilogy" by Mehta, including "Water" and "Earth".

See other films about India I reviewed on this blog.

03 November 2014

Book review: South Africa: A Traveller's History (2003), by David Mason *****

Travel to multi-colored South Africa

A Traveller's History of South Africa is intended as a comprehensive single volume survey of one of today's most popular and exciting destinations. Lifting the lid on this most multi-cultural of societies - and its chequered past - the book will begin by tracing the evolution of South Africa from prehistoric times, taking into account the most recent archaeological and anthropological findings. It will then chart the penetration of the region by European explorers and traders; the political, social and economic developments that follow on from this, and finally, the complicated descent into state repression of the majority black population after the Second World War. Bringing the story up to date, the book will also include practical information for the visitor, as well as a full compendium of historical facts and data.


Well written brief history of South Africa, will be a friendly companion to travelers there and will help appreciate the country better than a guide book.

Racial issues of course are prominent in this book, and the white vs black juxtaposition is described in a wealth of details. But the history of South Africa is one of parallel struggles amongst the white colonizers, one the one hand, and among indigenous Africans, on the other. English and Dutch settles (less the French) fought each other as much as Zulu fought Xhosa.

Interesting to learn that the NNC (forerunner of the ANC) supported segregation because it saw it as a way to acquire power over African tribal rulers. Yet, as Mandela put it, segregation developed over time to become " the codification inone oppressive system that was monolithic, diabolical in detail, inescapable in reach and overwhelming it power".

See other books and films about South Africa I reviewed in this blog.

17 October 2014

Recensione film: Il Matrimonio di Tuya (2007) di Wang Quan'an, *****

Testo italiano di seguito


Tuya is a young woman in Inner Mongolia (part of China) who lives with her paralyzed husband Barter and their two children. They are semi-nomad shepards and live off their sheep. Tuya can't cope with the hardships of providing for her family alone and is persuaded to divorce Barter and re-marry, but on the condition that the new husband will have to care for barter as well.


Tuya is a strong woman, realistically attached to her land and her family, and especially her husband. She works hard to feed them all. But she is also an idealist, because she thinks she can bypass love by marrying another man who could then provide for all of them barter included. She tries with two suitors, but it is clear that Barter can't accept being sidelined while his beloved Tuya belongs to another man.

It is a film on the absolute value of love, which can lead to self-denial and masochism, even suicide, but can't accept compromises.

An intersting film on life in Inner Mongolia, now part of the People's Republic of China, where pastoral traditions mix with the modernity that comes with integration into China. The movie is a Chinese production and the characters speak Chinese, not Mongol.

Testo italiano


Tuya è una giovane donna della Mongolia interna (parte della Cina) che vive con Barter (il marito paralizzato) e i due figli in una zona semidesertica. La loro fonte di sostentamento è la pastorizia. Tuya però non riesce più a reggere la fatica e le responsabilità. Accetta quindi di divorziare e risposarsi ma solo con un uomo che si prenda cura non solo dei suoi figli ma anche di Barter.


Tuya è una donna forte, realisticamente attaccata alla sua terra e soprattutto alla sua famiglia, compreso il marito Bater, restato paralizzato in un incidente, ed i figli. Lavora sodo e porta da mangiare a casa per tutti.

Ma anche idealista, perché pensa di poter scavalcare l'amore per poter assicurare al marito semiparalizzato un futuro sposando un altro uomo che si prenda cura di loro. Ci provano in due pretendenti, ma per motivi diversi Bater non può accettare di stare dietro le quinte mentre la moglie crea una nuova famiglia con un altro uomo.

È un film sull'assolutezza dell'amore, che porta fino all'autolesionismo e persino al suicidio per non fare compromessi.

Anche un bel film sulla vita della Mongolia interiore, parte della Cina, dove la cultura pastorale tradizionale si mischia con la modernità portata dall'integrazione con la Repubblica Popolare Cinese. Persino la lingua mongola viene ormai parlata mischiata al cinese.

18 September 2014

L'arrotino, l'ombrellaio

Sono nel mio appartamento a Roma, sto scrivendo. Sento passare per strada l'arrotino, da anni sempre la stessa registrazione, me lo ricordo almeno dagli anni ottanta. Chissà se è sempre lui? La voce che esce dal megafono elettrico non è cambiata.

Arriva in strada, annunciato dal megafono applicato sulla macchina. Si ferma, aspetta che scenda qualche cliente. Fa il suo lavoro e procede per la prossima strada. Così da decenni. Non so se sia una cosa buona o no. Da una parte è un segnale di arretratezza. Dall'altra, a Roma è impossibile trovare artigiani, operai, elettricisti, idraulici e immagino(non ho provato) arrotatori di coltelli. Una chiamata per un riparatore di una cucina a gas o uno scaldabagno costa 60 euro fissi più tempo di lavoro e parti di ricambio. L'arrotino è meglio!

"Donne è arrivato l'arrotino e l'ombrellaio, arrota coltelli, forbici, forbicine, forbici da seta, coltelli da prosciutto. Ripariamo ombrelli. Se avete perdite di gas, noi le aggiustiamo, se la cucina fa fumo, noi togliamo il fumo dalla vostra cucina a gas. Abbiamo i pezzi di ricambio delle cucine a gas. Lavoro subito, immediato."

22 May 2014

Recensione: Il mappamondo con la Cina al centro (2007), di Margherita Redaelli, ****

Matteo Ricci in Cina

Confrontarsi con la Cina: una sfida dei nostri tempi? L'impresa non è nuova se già quattrocento anni fa Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), gesuita e missionario, vi riuscì con risultati sorprendenti, utilizzando tecniche di gestione della diversità culturale che hanno ancora oggi molto da insegnare.

Il libro analizza il contenuto di queste tecniche e la ragione del loro successo. Rintraccia le idee filosofiche e scientifiche della cultura occidentale che Ricci divulgò in Cina e mette a confronto per la prima volta i suoi scritti con i classici greci e latini ai quali faceva riferimento. Si fa chiaro, allora, che la cultura umanistica del Ricci, ricostruita qui attraverso nuove ricerche d'archivio, gli permise di farsi mediatore tra due grandi civiltà.

Tra i tanti contributi del gesuita alla società che lo ospitò, spicca quello geografico. Infatti Ricci produsse la prima carta geografica del mondo per l'imperatore Ming, ed in questa carta la Cina appariva, come è logico, al centro.

clicca qui pervedere il mappamondo in dimensione originale
Il mappamondo con la Cina al centro di Matteo Ricci

Originalissimo libro di una studiosa italiana su uno dei più importanti contatti tra Europa e Cina al tempo della dinastia Ming. Ricci era un gesuita ma anche un uomo di scienza e come tale fu accolto ed apprezzato alla corte di Pechino. Curioso che, mentre Ricci insegnava geografia ed astronomia in Cina, a Roma Giordano Bruno veniva messo al rogo e Galileo obbligato a rinnegare la propria scienza.

La parte più interessante del libro è la seconda, che racconta del Ricci in Cina. La prima, forse troppo lunga (62 pagine) è sulla sua formazione in Italia.

Contributo centrale del Ricci è il metodo dell'inculturazione tramite il quale egli si integra culturalmente nelle alte sfere della civiltà cinese senza però cadere in trappole sincretistiche. Ricci non solo imparò il cinese, ma studiò il confucianesimo ed il buddismo per trovare punti di contatto tramite i quali perseguire l'opera di proselitismo.

Il libro contiene anche ricche appendici documentative. Quello che purtroppo manca è una descrizione più dettagliata della vita del Ricci in Cina, dei suoi problemi quotidiani, dei suoi contatti con la corte imperiale.

Trovi qui in questo blog la mia bibliografia sulla Cina.

You can read an English bio of matteo Ricci here.

05 May 2014

Book review: Journey to Yesterday (1950), by Silvia Baker, **

Muriel, by Silvia Baker

"One of the charms of travel" says Silvia Baker "is that you move in time as well as space. Weary of today, we can escape to half-mediaeval countries like Spain and Cyprus, or to enchanted islands in the Pacific or the Caribbean which are not spoilt as the tourists proclaime them to be."

Few are the fortunate people to whom the opportunity to sampre those charms is ever given. But to read about them is hardly, if at all, less satisfying, when the narrator is as observant, unconventional and witty as SIlvia Baker.

The two paragraphs above is what I read in the fron flap of the book's dust jacket while browsing the shelves of Daunt books, my favorite second hand travel book shop in London. I should have known better than trusting someone who can make such trite remarks but I decided to buy the book.

Polynesian girl drawn by the author

Disappointing. She does provide lots of anecdotes about her trip to the Pacific, but her observations are mostly superficial and inconsequential. They are so disorganized that one is left with nothing in the end that helps understand those countries and peoples.

Anecdotes and personal experience of a writer are not interesting in and of themselves except perhaps to his mother, but they might be interesting to a broader public if they are placed in the right context and help understand the object of the narration. Well you won't understand much about the countries Ms. Baker visited by reading this book.

On p. 34 she writes that "Tahiti is a kind of convent. You escape appointments, situations, anxieties, panics. You relax." Then on p. 71 we are subjected to the tiring litany of "until ten years ago, Tahiti was an Earthly Paradise", as in ... it is no longer one now (she writes in 1940). Reminds me of Gauguin who about forty years earlier fled Tahiti for the Marquesas because he thought they were spoiled and overcrowded then. It was always better ten years ago, and even better twenty. Please give me a break!

We do learn a few tid bits of interesting in formation, such that in Tahiti when a woman has no children she can ask a friend or sister who has several to give her one, especially a daughter, as she can help with the house chores.

A few pretty drawings by the author complement this book.

Btw her name is spelled SIlvia in the book, not Sylvia.

My always growing list of books on Polynesia is in this blog.

Buy the book in the US here

In the UK buy it here

01 May 2014

Books and Films about Music around the world

I am proposing here a list of books and films about the music of the world. I hope these books can help a traveler understand the countries concerned.


Zhu Xiaomei: The Secret Piano (2012). A harrowing story of music and love in China during the first decades following the 1949 Communist Revolution.

Cook, Nicholas: Music, A Very Short Introduction (1998) by Nicholas Cook.


Adlon, Percy: Mahler on the Couch (2002). Mahler, Freud, Gropius and Klimt set the tone for a return to the Belle Epoque.

Cellar Jones, Simon: Eroica (2003). A dynamic narrative of the day music changed forever.

Girard, François: The Red Violin (1998). Centuries of Italian history through the eyes of a ... violin!

Ichikawa, Kon: The Burmese Harp (1956). A Japanese soldier at the end of WW II finds a new life in music.

Kurosawa, Kiroshi: Tokyo Sonata (2008). The power of music when the going gets tough.

13 March 2014

Electrician in London

Sono a Londra da una settimana e ho bisogno di un elettricista per riparare alcuni interruttori nell'appartamento in cui abito. 

Non si riesce a trovare un elettricista. Quello del costruttore che ha da poco terminato la palazzina cancella un appuntamento all'ultimo momento. 

Alla fine Anna, un'italiana che vive qui da un paio d'anni, mi manda Ken, un volontario dice lei. Non capisco bene cosa voglia dire, ma prendo un appuntamento per il giorno dopo. 

Ken viene fa il lavoro e se ne va senza volere un penny. Insisto ma mi dice che non può accettare denaro perché è in pensione e non ha più la licenza. Proprio come in Italia... Alla fine accetta una bottiglia di vino!

01 March 2014

An Italian actress in London

Celeste is a 29-yo Italian artist who has been here a couple of years. She is from Puglia and tried a career in Rome but as so often the case there were too many insurmountable obstacles for her to have a chance. So she moved to London and now works at a major theater in Soho. She has adjusted to life in London effortlessly, her English is excellent and she is quite flexible in adapting to the environment.

Their budget being limited, she and her boyfriend usually share a house or an apartment with other students or young couples. She tells me that she met many good and interesting people, but had several problems with muslim families. She has been repeatedly insulted by their men for wearing a skirt above the knee (inside her own house!). Her boyfriend has been accused of assault for having the temerity to enter the shared kitchen space while the Bangladeshi wife was already there cooking something or other.

The Bengali couple called the police who came and immediately realized the young Italian man had done nothing wrong but advised them to find another accommodation without muslim roommates as these episodes were all too common.

28 February 2014

Drive to London

Today I am driving to the UK for a couple of months. It's a test stay, to see whether it might be a good idea to move there later for a longer time. Probably not for good. But then again nothing is for good.

I arrive at Le Shuttle terminal in Calais and I am surprised that my number plate is immediately recognized by CCTV and I am welcomed by a screen that reads "Welcome Mr. Carnovale". All I have to do is push a button and pick up a hanger that is printed out and the access bar lifts to let me through.

Moments later I am sitting behind my wheel of my car, engine off, parking brake on, inside a train car with few small windows and a rather depressing feel to it.

But in about half an hour I am on the other side of the English Channel. Very convenient.

Another two hours' drive and I am in London. I always loved London as a tourist, let's see what it's like to live here for a couple of months.

In the evening a friend invites me to dinner at "Il salotto", an Italian restaurant run by Giorgio, entrepreneurial Italian who came here to renovate buildings and instead found himself opening a restaurant in the City which serves top notch Italian food and wines. On the first floor (the second floor for Americans) there is a men's clothing store! Giorgio says this is their passion. Not sure it will be economically viable, real estate is so expensive in the City.

12 January 2014

Bibliography: books and films on South Africa

Books on South Africa

Mason, David, South AFrica, A Traveler's History (2003)

Films on South Africa

Invictus (2009), by Clint Eastwood. How a president used a rugby match to make a nation.

The Gods must be Crazy I and II (1988), by Jaimie Uys. A funny but serious rendering of the plight of the Bushmen.

10 January 2014

35. - 10 Jan.: Ending with a big bang, see you soon again South Africa

My last day in South Africa, at least for this trip. I am in love with this country, I am sure I'll be back ASAP.

Breakfast with smoked haddock, fresh fruits, omelette and cereals. My last hyper-protein full international breakfast this time around in South Africa. I am going to miss it. Petrus is free this morning, every one else went shopping at the Waterfront. He kindly offers to take me around town. So I have a 30-seater bus all for myself for one last round of exploration.

He has been much more than a good driver. He gave good advice and feedback and offered good insight into the new South Africa. He told me he remembers the days of apartheid, when he was brought up to look down upon his black and colored mates, it was normal then. What changed his views was service in the army, where he had a black sergeant giving him orders, and especially work, where he could see how white, black and colored drivers would work well together, support each other and really had much more that bound them together than a different skin color.

I ask him to go and see something that could give me a bit of a view of how ordinary Capetonians live. He proposes a couple of markets, which I think is a great idea. Whenever I travel I put markets at the top of my list of priorities.

We first head to the Greenmarket square. It's a huge square with many souvenir stands and some interesting flea market sellers. I am looking for a Springbok T-shirt and find a few that fit and are reasonably priced, but Petrus has a sharp eye and spots some defects in the shirts, better buy somewhere else.

We then move to Grand parade square, famous, among other reasons, for it is here that Mandela spoke to the crowds after his liberation in 1990. Many day laborers hang around hoping for a job. Unemployment in South Africa is high but somehow the country still need foreign labor for the most menial jobs. Unskilled workers from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and elsewhere keep making their way to this country in hope for a better future.

I later walk into a supermarket to look at local cost of living: 1 kg minced beef 50r, 1kg pork chops 45r, 500g pack of pasta 9 r, 1kg premium chicken 32 r, cheap for me, not so much for an average local salary.

I notice a pick-up truck with a trailer trailer full of glass, apparently there is money to be made in collecting empty glass bottles he sells for recycling.

Later to the Springbok experience, where fans can buy all kinds of paraphernalia of the famous rugby team.  A life-zide simulater even allows to simulate passes. This time I can shop for real green and yellow jerseys. Petrus confirm still true as before that rugby is mostly white and soccer mostly black. He says this is not because of any discrimination, but simply because whites are better at rugby while blacks are the best soccer players. The important thing should be that South Africe fields the best team in each sport, no matter the color of the players' skin. Other blacks I have talked to told me they think rugby still a racist sport and told me that the youth league has lots of blacks but rhen only whites selected for national team. Hard for me to verify.

At noon, Petrus is kind enough to drive me to the SIgnal Hill noon gun again, and this time I can prepare myself and get the perfect shot of the shot!

Sunny day for a farewell and it is time to drive to the airport. Petrus has a day off tomorrow.  He plans to spend it with his daughter who lives wirh hia ex wife. Perhaps he'll take her to Hermanus to see the colony of seals.He is going to spoil her, and I can see his eyes shining with anticipation.

Good bye South Africa, see you soon again!

09 January 2014

34. - 9 Jan.: Cape Town slaves, cannons and jazz

Wake up leisurly and after another my usual dose of fruits, eggs and toast at the hotel buffet I join the others on our bus for one more day of touring. First stop is the Cape Malay quarter, Bokaap. It's the former malay quarter, really, as it has now blended almost completely with the rest of the city. Only a couple of streets remain true to the original colorful patterns and a mosque testifies to the islamic background of the immigrants taken here by the Dutch from their colony in Indonesia.

Bokaap with cars
Debora is trying to take pictures without cars in them. I don't understand why. There are cars in Bokaap today, they are as much part of the landscape here as they are in Rome or New York. She is trying to take pictures of the way Bokaap was fifty, or perhaps one hundred years ago. Hard to do, and most importantly, why would you want to?

And then one should edit out power lines, water hydrants, paved roads, electric doorbells, TV antennas, and of course tourists. All tourists try to take pictures without tourists. Real photographers, who want to document the reality of the places they visit, do not try to paint a romanticized image of what those places might have looked like in the past, but try to convey their view of the current situation to their viewers.

I take a walk up a steep sloping street and find myself in an Islamic cemetery. It's the old Tana Baru cemetery, the first Islamic cemetery in Cape Town. The then governing Dutch granted religiuos freedom to the Muslims they had brought over in 1805, mostly because they needed to recruit their manpower to strengthen their wobbly forces in the face of a likely British invasion. In addition to several mosques, a cemetery was an obvious requirement.

There is no one around and a few dozen graves seem to be a bit neglected. I always like visiting cemeteries in foreign countries, they can tell a lot about the people. Here we fne From here it is possible to enjoy an awsome and unobstructed view of the city. I snap a few shots and walk down again to meet the others.

It may sound trite, and it probably is, but my favorite spot for the day is Signal Hill, where the noon gun salutes each midday in Cape Town. It's a sunny day and a crowd of about one hundred people begins to assemble around the site at about 11:30. An officer is at hand to explain all about the history of the gun, which has been in operation since 1902 and has been fired about 65,000 times. I position myself to try and get a shot of the gun just a split second after firing, so as to show the white smoke plume coming out of the barrel. In doing so I fail to notice that a number of people are getting ready to video the firing, and to my regret I block their view. I am punished by some African divinity when my pictures of the firing are not as sharp and well timed as I had hoped :(

My poor shot of the shot is followed by a pic nic on the higher grounds of Signal Hill. From here there is a great view of Cape Town, I think better than from the top of Table Mountain because one is not as far and it is possible to make out many more details and individual buildings. A conifer forest frames the view and provides a superb setting for our lunch break.

After lunch, I notice a group of colorful veils and dresses flapping near the railing of an observation platform:  some elegant women are taking pictures of each other and their guide. They look Somali and indeed, when I introduce myself and ask, the more loquacious of them confirms they are on holiday from Mogadishu. I think it's the first time I meet a Somali tourist. For some reason it's hard to imagine well-to-do Somali traveling the world while their country has been a shambles for most of the last half a century. Anyway they are happy to share pictures: I am particularly attracted by the henna on their hands. They are not on Facebook but agree to exchange Whatsapp contact numbers.

As we drive back to town on the Strand the driver explains this used to be the Cape Town Waterfront before reclaimed land pushed it further out where it is today. He points to two bridges, pedestrian overpasses to cross the busy road.  One is covered, protecting pedestrians from the elements, and one open. Petrus explains that until 1994 the first was reserved for whites and the second, you guessed, was for non whites to get wet during the rainy season.

Last afternnon in Cape Town, I decide to give my zebra skin hunting one more chance. Against all expectations I find the best price in a posh store at the Waterfront, 13,250 Rand including a springbok skin. It was not an easy negotiation. Betty, the (black) ebullient saleswoman hugs me when I strike a deal over the phone with the (white) cold sounding shop owner. The saleswoman makes   a good commission on her sales but is not authorized to give discounts except for small items. For that the owner wants her to call her at home or wherever she is to approve. Betty said January started well while December and the Xmas season were slow.

Betty is so happy, she can't stop repeating: "You made my day"! When I ask for directions to another store where I need to buy a trolley for the zebra skin she is more than happy to personally walk me there.

I always wanted a zebra skin. I find zebras not only beautiful but most intriguing and mysterious. They look all so similar at a superficial glance and yet each of their pattern is unique.  No two zebras are alike. This one, Betty explained, has some beige between the black and white stripes, indicating it comes from Namibia. I have no idea of course. In a way I am a bit sorry because I wanted one from South Africa. But on the other hand I have been to Namibia seventeen years ago and this will bring back memories, it will be a sign of continuity in my African experience. Also, I like the beige streaks in the blackand white pattern a lot.

I am not sure what I will do with it. Maybe I'll put it down on the floor, in my attic where I am usually alone or with few friends and no one is allowed to wear shoes.  But I don't like the idea of walking on this beautiful skin. Maybe I'll hang it on a wall. But I don't like the idea of just looking at it. I want to have it somewhere where I can communicate with it, by touching it, by smelling it, by turning it around. Maybe I'll put it on my dining table.  Not to use it as table cloth of course but as decoration when I am not dining on my dining table. But I feel it would be demeaning for the zebra to take it away from the table just when my friends and I are sitting down to make merry. Maybe I'll use it as a spread over my couch. But I am afraid it might be damaged by people constantly sitting and rubbing on it. No maybe I'll use it as a bed spread. That way I can be close to it without running any risk of damaging it.

Meet Sabelo again at 6:30 pm in my hotel's parking lot. Valentina and I are going for one more final township tour, this time to visit the home of Blackey Tempi, a well knows trumpetist who has become an iconic representative of local music.

Blackey Tempi and friend
On the way, Sabelo tells us a bit about music in South Africa. We learn about Toyi toyi protest music, used during apartheid but also later to protest against the current government's policies.

He also explains tu us the meaning of the 2  January carnival: when slavery was the law of the land, slave owners would celebrate New year on 1 January like the rest of the world, but would allow the following day free to their slaves, so as to let steam off. This music has had strong influence in South Africa jazz.

Paradoxically, Sabelo laments that there was more jazz during apartheid because jazz venues were used as surrogate for political protest. Sympathetic owners would let artists use them for free. Now they want payment and fewer and fewer musicians can afford it. For most clubs, it is cheaper to hire a dj than musicians.

We also learn the incredible story of Tiyo Soga who in the 1880s started music schools for black. That's where most black musicians learned music and it was a milestone in the country's musical heritage. Tiyo is alive and kicking a century and a half later.

I also learn about the life of the composer of South African national anthem "God bless Africa". Enoch Sontonga was an obscure musician born sometime around 1873. He composed "Nkosi Sikelele Afrika" and no one would remember him had the ANC not chose to adopt his composition as its anthem as far back as 1925. Since 1994 it is part of the multilingual national anthem of South Africa. We also learn about the Cape jazz tradition and its analogies with the much more well know American kind.

Much of the musical tradition developed in the Shebeens, unlicensed Irish pubs where musicians could gather more or less undisturbed. Often musicians would end up stayin all night because curfew laws did not allow them return home and they had to wait for dawn.

When we arrive at  Blackey's we are welcomed at door by him, a friend and his wife Sheila. The house is simple and small but dignified. All windows and the door are pretty heavily protected from intruders. Blackey plays initially with mute.  Then without the mute, and the sound comes out full and powerful. His friend accompanies with a guitar. At some point, after dinner, an exhuberant lady, Zami, a niece of Blackey, pops in and joins the duo with her explosive voice to provide a perfect ending to a memorable performance.

For dinner Blackey's wife Sheila prepares gratin potatoes cabbage, spinach, beans and chicken "à la sheila". How do you do it? I dare to ask... It's a secret recipe, she says with a smile... We drink home made a kind of alcohol-free ginger beer. And some good South Africa Shiraz which goes very well with Sheila's secret chicken!

Before leaving, as Valentina breaks out in tears for the warm welcome we have been honored to receive, I buy Blackey's CD, 120 Rand well spent. It's been an unforgettable human experience first, and a musical one as well, and the evening is only half-way through.

But the musical night is not over: next stop in no less than St. George's Cathedral, in downtown Cape Town. The mythical church from where Desmond Tutu preached against apartheid. But the old priest is not around tonight. In fact the church is closed. So why are we going there? To walk a few steps down to the Crypt!

Sabelo explains that the church needed money and could not raise enough from donations and public subsidies. So they decided to put their basement to work for profit. Churches are supposed to always have their doors oped for pilgrims and the poor, and the Crypt does too, but they offer cocktails, wine, beer and a wide variety of food, for a price.

Here we are welcomed by Mtehetho, a smiling waiter in his early twenties who leads Sabelo, Valentina and me to share a table with another couple. An American sax player is on the stage and fills the air with a mellow tune from the sixties, accompanied by a pianist who sits discretely in a corner. The Crypt is dark, as a crypt should be, and the spotlight make for a true jazz bar experience.

After a while they take a brake but the stage does not remain empty for long. Mteheto takes a position behind the microphone and starts singing Italian opera! Afterwords, I ask him and he says he always had this passion, is largely selftaught but would like an opportunity to study and become a professional singer. I am very happy to put a couple of bills in his tip money glass on the counter. This guy can go places if he gets a chance.

Mtehetho in Italian

08 January 2014

33. - 8 Jan.: Cape Town wine tasting and Langa, Khayelitsha and Gugulethu townships

Morning drive to Hout Bay. It is windy and drizzling, but the view of the costline is impressive nonetheless. In a somber, austere way.

On the way the driver stops at a viewpoint and I notice, not far away, a crew of about 15 workers, about half men and half women, huddling under the roof of a delapidated house. It looks like it has been hit by the weather for years, abandoned and now filled with sand.  Wet sand now: it looks like it's been soaking rain for a few hours at least.

It's an eerie but somehow attractive scene, it could be the stage for a movie by Sergio Leone, were it not for the fact that it does not rain much in his movies. I approach and ask them what they are up to and if I can photograph. They are there to cleare the scene of sand and debris, but can't work under the rain. The light rain is not so intimidating to me but they have no raincoats. We chat for a while, I snap a few shots of their green overalls against the red bricks of the house and the white sand, and off I go.

On the way back to Cape Town it occurs to me that we are close to the Groot Constantia winery, the oldest in South Africa. We have to stop and go for a tasting. As we approach, we drive by the Pollsmoor prison, where Mandela was held after his Robben island years until he was finally freed in 1990.

The tasting is fun: for a small fee you can taste five of their wines, and for a little extra cash you get a small cheese platter, nicely served on a small wooden board with a small wooden knife. A white lady and a black man operate two serving stations in the huge tasting room. Lots of tables in the middle allow wine lovers to mingle and take their time as they get the various wines poured into their glasses.

We take our time but I keep an eye on my watch: it's not far from town but we don't want to be late to what promises to be the highlight of the day: a township tour with Sabelo, the bright young tour leader who took me and Yan for a music evening last month. I called him yesterday to organize another musical evening (we'll do that tomorrow) and mentioned in passing whether he also organized some visit of townships surrounding the Cape Town. Of course!

He is at our hotel at 14:00 hours, punctual as a Swiss watch, with a small van and Daniel, a jovial driver who will be at the wheel for the afternoon while Sabelo explains and shares his vast knowledge of the townhips.  He actually does not live here but in another township, which however he does not think is safe to visit, even in his company.

The first townships we visit is Langa. It means "Sun" and was built in the 1920s to host blacks evicted from other neighborhoods such as Ndabeni that were too close to rich white areas for comfort. All this decades before apartheid was even formally the law of the land.

First stop at Cape Town tourism center in Langa, this township is not as well known as Soweto but it is trying to find its way in the tourism business. Some artists display their paintings and sculptures, musicians who demonstrate traditional music, students study in a reading room.  We are kindly offered a music lesson by a drummer.

Ladies by the gate, not particularly busy with anything, fun to talk to anyway.I snap some pics of a lady by a wall mosaic and she seems to appreciate the attention. With them, a security guard is listening to some music from the radio. He wears a loose khaki uniform and a red tie, with a badge on his arm that reads "Security - Distinctive Choice". Somehow I find myself in agreement with the general thrust of the idea.

Just by the entrance two men in their thirties are exchanging banter and I join them for a few minutes. After the usual questions about Italian football, Totti etc, they tell me a bit about their life. In a nutshell, their message is that they have a normal life, Langa is a normal place with its good and bad, dos and don'ts, happy and sad. Maybe that is the main point I will come away with at the end of the day. Townships are becoming "normal" places, normal for South Africa anyway.

Self-portrait at the hairdresser

Lots of kids play music of some sort, and I am attracted to an especially photogenic girl with a drum, who plays on the sidewalk surrounded by a couple of dozen children.  It's still the school holidays so they are free even though it is a weekday.

Street music in Langa

Outside the visitor center a man with no feet sits quietly in a wheelchair. He does not beg for money, does not reciprocate my greetings and does not bat an eyelid when I ask him to take a photograph. He hardly seems alive. Maybe that is the saddest condition of all, having lost the desire to live.

On the contrary, the people I meet as we proceed to walk around the township are anything but. At first I am a bit hesitant, I do feel some emotional pressure as this is the first "real" township I visit, it's not tourist-filled Soweto. But the ice is easily broken. Most people are happy to chat and all kids are elated to have their pictures taken.

After a half hour of walking I run into a team of ladies who are busy cooking a whole pile of sheep heads. Yes sheep heads. They sit on a chair and each have a not-so-small fire next to them. They protect the skin of their faces from the heat with some special cream,  The heads are cooked and then placed on a large table by the roadside, presumably for sale though I am the only one who comes forward and buys one. I have to try! Well it's good, tender meat, the cheeks expecially. No one else wants to try. Too bad (for them).

Some adolescent girls are clearly flattered and after a polite invitation offer flirting poses to my lens. One in particular, whom I approach at the gate of her house, gets very much into the model mode. She is a fine interpereter of "moods": as if your boyfriend just sent you flowers, as if your boyfriend just made you mad, as if you want to seduce a boy...

Next stop is Khayelitsha, a large township of 400.000 people that lies 22 kilometers to the East down the N2 road. The first place we visit is the rather grandly named "Department of Coffee" coffee shop, just next to the large railway station. A micro enterprise by Wongama, a former fire guard and two friends of his who decided to open this shop when they realized there was no place to get a warm drink for the thousands of people using the railway every day and saw an opportunity. They say at first people were sceptical but now business is briks and they are thinking of opening another shop. "CAPPUCCINO" for 8.5 Rand is at the top of their red menu board hanging from the wall of their small bar.

Our second stop in the township is at the Velokhaya cycling academy. The word Velokhaya is derived from the French word for cycling (velo) and the Xhosa word for home (khaya) – as such, we’re regarded as the ‘home of cycling’ in Khayelitsha. A school of cycling but also of life, where kids from the townships are offered a chance to develop a skill but also, and perhaps more importantly, personal discipline and a sense of purpose. Co-founder Glyn Broomberg explains in this video. And the other co-founder Amos Ziqubu gives his story. Unfortunately we are still in school holidays so there are no kids training here.

You can understand more about Khayelitsha township in the video "My mother built this house" on housing problems here. See a trailer for the film "A wooden camera" on this township here.

No vegetarians at Mzoli's
The third and final township of the day is Gugulethu. Here out target is Mzoli's, a butcher who had the idea of not only selling meat but also setting up a huge grill and serving his streaks and sausages to customers who wanted to eat there. His humble restaurant has become increasingly popular with locals and increasingly with tourists, both South African and foreign. Prices are cheap, the meat is excellent and the atmosphere is warm and welcoming.

Bye bye Gugulethu
Music is loud but pleasant in the terrace next to the shop where simple tables are continuously filled with trays of hot meat, but no cutlery or napkins, so I am soon in dire straits trying to juggle sausages and lenses without making a mess of either. No alcohol can be served but Mr. Mzoli has no objections if we buy it next door and take it in. After a while most locals, seeminly regular patrons, are dancing, soon to be joined by the ladies in my group!

After such an intense day, what would otherwise have been a pleasant walk and dinner becomes a pretty insignificant evening at the Waterfront.