Living the pages of Revelations

Living the pages of Revelations

A naked man gyrates his arse in front of two masked men dressed as bishops, the tassles of his fig-leaf flapping as he goes.

A placard held high above the crowd spells out that “Roman Catholicism is of the devil”.

In what appears an ordinary, family restaurant, the television shows a woman suckling a young kitten.

A man lies prone, head back on the concrete step of the bar door where he passed out, his friends unable to move his drunken bulk.

Hulks of men, bedecked with enormous feather-dress fascinators trundle past in a parade fuelled by an ecstasy of plastic beads-necklaces and crowd-led cheer.

School bands march past, drummers swinging wildly at instruments battered near to broken, their rears followed by sequin-dressed women, their fronts proceeded by banners proclaiming school and state.

This is Mardi Gras, New Orleans: a melange of colour and noise, where crowds fill every street, every pavement and every bar. It truly is a place of wonders.

There is food aplenty to match the crowds. Soupy seafood gumbo; stewy seafood etouffee; seafood sandwiches called po-boys; boiled spicy crawfish known as crawdads, the heads of which must be sucked out for a shot of hot spice in a display of local manliness; deep-fried, creole-spiced prawns, alligator and chicken; and oysters – plenty of oysters.

The drink, too, is as varied as the crowd. With New Orlean’s open carry laws – referring here to the unusual ability to carry opened alcohol in the streets, not its relaxed attitude to guns – people slurped cocktails from large plastic beakers shaped to give rise to a puerile play-on-words. Mint Juleps, with real southern bourbon, were served up by long-time locals, whose closed-lipped half-swallowed accent formed words quite impossible to understand. A Tom Collins was easily ordered from many a local place, quickly made and packing punch.

But as New Orleans Louisiana (NOLA to those who know) traipsed from bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant, balcony to balcony, and crowd-filled street to crowd-filled street, a darker side could be seen despite all the superficial gaiety. In a bar that could have been plucked from the pages of Faulkner, Civil War-style muskets bedecked the hallway ceiling and blonde-haired southern women took turns in playing at a pair of copper-clad pianos while the crowd cheered to such staples as “Sweet Home Alabama”. But a quick peer through the atmospheric gloom at bar staff vs customer could lead the innocent to wonder if segregation had ever ended. It hadn’t in these crowded halls.

On the streets, too, there were signs that Mardi Gras might mean different things to different people. As if powered by the electric current, young men would leap to their feet to tap-dance jerkily on the pavement in front of a plastic bucket-begging bowl whenever someone passed. Elsewhere, young boys played drums on upturned buckets, their furious banging sometimes catching the ear of the swirling mass…and sometimes not.

For all of this, New Orlean’s French Quarter presented a most magnificent stage. Old, balconied houses with wonderful interiors provided a welcome contrast to the grim concrete blocks of the surrounding districts. This was a different slice of America to what I had seen before, but sitting in a café near the water I was reminded that this still was America. Where else would one order a plate of sugar-drowned, greasy, deep-fired beignet and be embarrassed not by one’s gluttony but by one’s restraint?

The sweetest thing

The sweetest thing

In Washington to try and sort out some paperwork, I had nothing to do but wait.  Wait for clerks and wait for breakfast and wait for lunch.

Founded in 1856, the Old Ebbitt Grill describes itself as a tradition.  Certainly, it had the American tradition of a barman with something in common with every single customer.  As I eavesdropped on his patter, if he didn’t come from the same state as his interlocutor then one of his ever multiplying sisters surely did.  As I was leaving a woman began coo-ing over a little dog.  “Oh, that is so cute!” she said. “Isn’t he just adorable,” she said. “Isn’t that the sweetest thing,” she said. I looked around for the dog but couldn’t see it.  Locking eyes with the woman, I flushed a little as I realised that I was the sweetest, cutest, most adorable thing.  The waitress next to me could barely suppress her laugh.  I felt it time for a dignified exit.

At the Smithsonian museum on American history, I walked through a couple of exhibitions to kill time away from the sun.  One was on the treatment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War; the other was about the invention of the incandescent lightbulb.  Yet in truth neither was about their advertised topics.  Both were at heart about American greatness.  The exhibition on the internment of over seventy-five thousand citizens for the crime of ethnic ancestry was really about how great America was for apologising forty years later. It was as if the entire episode was merely a vehicle to demonstrate a people’s commitment to working for an ever more perfect union.

As my wait stretched into the evening I went to find a hotel for the night, checking into one I had been to before with nothing but my computer, book and a couple of sheets of paper.  I sat in the park across the road from the hotel to secure my discounted on-line booking. Almost as soon as I hit the confirm button a fight broke out. Two huge men threw themselves at each other, fists finding their mark with surprisingly definite, if squishy, sounds. As one bolted for the gate the other, in a phrase I didn’t know existed outside Hollywood films, shouted “I’m gonna #$%& you up every day if I see you in this park again. I’m a gonna #$%& you up ever-day!”.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I had made a mistake in my choice of hotel.


You’re in the right place

You’re in the right place

It was said to me in a low voice at one particular moment, but it could have captured any one of a million moments.

My few days in Washington have taken in a number of cultural highlights. From the grey, glass-and-steel, sprawling-shopping-centre dullness of corporate suburbia at Tyson’s Corner, where so many contractors converge to grow fat off the Federal Government, I moved to an altogether less sanitised slice of America.

Driving through one of Washington’s less salubrious neighbourhoods, I was able to take in a matinee performance of the ‘crack shuffle’. I cannot say it put me in mind of the ‘kabuki’ theatre I attended in Tokyo; imagine something a little more akin to street improvisation. The jerky, seemingly incoherent and unpredictable movements of the lead mesmerised as we slowed to a crawl through a junction in Washington.

In Baltimore, we passed through areas that would have made London’s inner-city council estates appear full of joy and hope. Stretch after stretch of three story barrack-house brick-built blocks of flats ended in a prison surrounded with barbed-wire. Straight after the prison was a left turn onto Constitution Street. The narrow lane carried a rather damaged air, hemmed in as it was with high walls, aging cars and yet more barbed wire. We turned right instead, away from the prison and the barbed wire and the low rise blocks of flats. We passed, instead, the Baltimore Reedom School; the F had long since gone and the new spelling somehow seemed a little more appropriate.

For dinner there was Ben’s Chilli Bowl, a Washington institution since 1958. We sat at the bar eating chilli-con-carne slopped over chips and watched the staff ‘clean’ the grime from the stove by first scattering ice cubes across its top, and then scraping the surface with a burger flipping spatula. Moments later, the same implement was indeed used to flip the weird pink meat that was to make a burger, or at least flip the bits of patty that had not cemented themselves to the newly cleaned metal surface.

Were these where I was in the right place? Or was it the Buddhist meditation session I attended at a Unitarian church? It is hard to know where to begin. But I will trust to my companion. I was in the right place.

And indeed I was. Few weeks have been as restful and simply enjoyable as this week with a friend in Washington. For the most part I stayed away from the tourist trail: I have been here a couple of times before. Still, it was interesting to look inside the Library of Congress (it felt so much smaller than either the Bodleian or the British Library), and to enter the Rotunda of the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I visited too, the National Cemetery at Arlington, and walked around the serried ranks of gravestones. I visited the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched two nineteen year old soldiers go through their paces in the changing of the guard. My companion, himself an ex-(US) marine, showed me the graves of his friends and told me their stories. These were stories, always tinged with sadness, of extreme humanity, told with a gentle joy. Though the graves stretched to beyond where the eye could see, these stories seemed to stretch back even further.

So my week has ended. Tomorrow I will again be in the office in Riyadh. This slice of America, from junkies to war heroes, from buildings crumbling into despair to people overflowing with optimism, from fast food to fine food, demands that one ask oneself ‘where am I meant to be?’.

Was my companion right? I still will trust to him. I was in the right place. But where next will the right place be?







A bruised ego

It has been a pleasant few days in San Diego. The sun has warmed me, even if the breeze wicked away any feeling of heat. The ocean on one side and the mountains on the other, the blues and greens, made for a pleasant contrast. The conversation was stimulating and educational.

So educational, in fact, that it rather brought home a point best articulated by an old school history master of mine. One does not know the extent of one’s own ignorance. Such a blissful lack of self-awareness was denied me by the last few days. What was said was fascinating, but I had to concentrate, and even then there were parts I could not follow. The overall conclusions, yes: these were transparent, perhaps even obvious. The theorising was in large part understandable. But the technical details? Or even the precise historical, biographical, political and cultural details? Of these there were some that I did not capture.

So perhaps my knowledge and scholarship need building on. I can counsel my ego that everyone’s does. There is no one who cannot or should not learn more. But then waiting for me on my telephone at the end of the day were a few brief messages. I would like to say that the tone of brief, terse, text messages is easily misconstrued. I know this is true. But even so.

Piled upon the feeling that I could be better in my field is the wince-inducing suggestion that I could be a better man.


Keeping one’s clothes on

Flowing the locals, I walked past the large sign saying ‘Keep Out: Unstable Cliffs’ and picked my way down the cliff-face path to the beach below. The Pacific breakers cast their white horses upon the fine sand before retreating backwards. The area around San Diego, especially up near the university, is beautiful. The ocean stretches away at the foot of cliffs topped with clingy green. At the top of cliffs, the poor soil sees the grass give way before the edge of the cliffs; halophytes shove their fat fleshy green fingers up from the ground a little closer to the edge; but even here the odd tree stood.

Down on the beach, of course, everything is different. There isn’t any green here, barely even any seaweed: just a little tinge of brown here and there. Little drill-holes in the sand betray the life lurking beneath the surface. But none of this really mattered. What caught the eye of the new arrival, what really demanded explanation, was why there were three men walking around as if tracing the outline of some erratic polygon while wearing not a scrap of clothing.

These were not the honed bodies of Hollywood’s California. These were men for whom middle-age weighed heavily on both the hips and sagging collagen. If their cheeks carried a red-lustre, they were not the cheeks on their face.

Why can Americans not keep their clothes on? I remember, too, on my last time in New York, two ladies in Times Square were baring all. Is this just the difference between the relaxed New World and the stuffy old one?


Water from Fiji isn’t fizzy

Endless amounts of confusion over dinner resulted in a bottle of Fijian mineral water being brought to my table. I had tried to order sparkling water, but perhaps my accent got in the way. He couldn’t understand the word sparkling, but brightened up considerably when I spoke about fizzy water. Unfortunately, while I was talking about fizzy water he was talking about Fiji water and neither of us realised we weren’t having the same conversation.


Seals on the seashore

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A break from work in San Diego saw us down by the coast for a very late lunch. Think less Spanish and more Brazilian in terms of the timing.

The food was so-so, the beach a little scrappy; but there were other sights to see.


My thanks

My thanks must go to American Airlines for a really horrid journey. Tokyo to San Diego was never going to be fun but American Airlines did their best to make it worse. A boiling aeroplane and a wonderfully uncomfortable seat that made sleep quite impossible. I looked in envy at the man next to me who slept the entire way. When he finally woke I confessed my admiration; he confided his reliance on sleeping tablets to get through a journey on American. The food was pretty rubbish too. Breakfast was a bowl of paper-thin looking cornflakes. I think I managed a weak smile but after nine hours of purgatory I don’t know how.

Still, the best was yet to come. The kind baggage handlers at American seem to use my suitcase as a practice trampoline. The astonishingly expensive presents bought in Japan and carefully wrapped and packaged and then cossetted in the middle of my suitcase for maximum protection were smashed.

It is a joy to travel on a US carrier.



Before coming here, a friend had delivered a blunt warning. Not having visited Canada was not a good enough reason to visit it. My experience of Canada, even beyond its borders, has been limited. I knew a girl at university who was Canadian but I had always put her abundance of character defects down to her own peculiar makeup rather than any national baggage. I went with my mind a blank slate. Not knowing what to expect I went expecting nothing in particular.

I don’t know how representative Montreal is of Canada in general. In some ways, of course, it cannot be at all representative. The French speaking Quebecois appear to have sought independence from Canada at every juncture when they are safe in the knowledge that it won’t be delivered. In other ways, perhaps it is representative of a country with economic and historical ties pulling in opposite directions, and with cultural ties inexorably drifting in just one direction. Whatever the case, the contradictions and tensions in Montreal are immediately apparent.

I flew in on an American Airlines ‘plane. It was tiny. At the end of the short flight, I had forgotten quite how tiny it was and tried to stand upright when getting up from my seat. Head and ceiling reminded me that this was a place for stooping. As the cabin door opened an American Airlines employee boarded the ‘plane and spoke to us in French. Of course: Quebec; but the crew and passengers all spoke English. There wasn’t, as far as I could tell, a monolingual French speaker on board. In contrast, at least half would have understood no French. It was the typical act of cultural defiance. French must come first.

So it did. Enter a shop and you would be greeted with ‘Bonjour, Hi’. Unless they forgot and a ‘Hi, Bonjour’ slipped in. Leave the shop and look at the street, though, and it was all American. The cars were American: the police drove Dodges. What could be more American than that? The street signs were in the American style, as were the fire-engines and the safety helmets worn by builders. The traffic laws appeared to be straight from down south and the chains were all very familiar from across the border too. So the distinct identity sought in the language wasn’t being sought elsewhere. Or if it was, only in the most unobtrusive manner. Of course, there were differences that made Montreal feel a little different to New York, but as a first-time visitor to Canada, I couldn’t tell if it was a true Canada-USA divide or just a big city-small city difference. I am not convinced I saw any real French-English divide except in the language. Is Montreal just an urban version of the story of Concorde: they don’t really care as long as they can insist on the Gallic ‘e’.

IMAG0191 (800x451)Tensions were found in other places too.  The airport appeared efficient and spacious with good facilities, but it was weirdly slow and lacking. Flying back to the USA, US customs and immigration was dealt with in Montreal, but there was only one immigration official actually stamping passports. Airside shops were few and charged Canadian tax. This despite it being nominally the airside of an international airport with shops saying duty-free. The whole tax thing was another hideous Americanism that the Quebecois had adopted in defiance of their homeland’s traditions: advertised prices all excluded the various indirect taxes levied. As an example of another tension, arriving in Montreal one was greeted with the odd mixture of rude efficiency. Canadian immigration was fast, but it wasn’t friendly. The man at the information desk was helpful, but had a dismissive manner and didn’t really want to look up from his telephone. He also told me to get off at completely the wrong bus stop in town.

Things were better outside. The bus from the airport was fast and inexpensive, with free wi-fi on board. This was a nice surprise. Completely free, not time limited, and with no annoying registration requirements asking for endless bits of personal information. The hotel staff were friendly and let me check-in early. And Montreal was pleasant to walk around.

There were differences from New York. There was not such an aggressively high number of police on the streets. Those that I saw were equivocal in their image: thuggish looking brutes topped with camp red French-style berets. The buildings loomed less. And the city was much more walkable. It was far smaller, much less crowded and a lot more relaxed.

First off was a walk along Rue Sainte-Catherine, the Oxford Street of Montreal. Don’t go overboard about how exciting the shops are, but it was an interesting road along which to walk in any case. Taking shank’s pony west through the very French-sounding Downtown district, I came to Rue Crescent. The chain stores gave way to grim, rowdy bars. Music blared out across the street, people lined up to kick footballs through hoops. It was as if I had stepped into the backpacker quarter of Bangkok. The same faces peered from the same verandas of the same themed bars. It was horrid. I quickened my pace.

Then it stopped. One junction on and les boutiques appeared. Some even sold things one could contemplate buying. I found a pleasant little sandwich shop and stopped for lunch. Well, here was another difference from New York. No cards were accepted. I had to go searching for a bank. Here lay yet another difference from New York. An irritating number of local banks refused to accept international cards. At last, I found an American bank in Canadian guise. My cards worked. It was with more than grim satisfaction that I paid for lunch with money bearing the Queen’s head.

IMAG0187 (800x451)My route post-prandial was better. At the airport, I had picked up the tourist information centre’s surprisingly good leaflet. With maps, the guide picked out the highlights of the tourist trail in language that began to change my entire outlook on the place. The brochure clearly had not been written by the Gallic vanguard. I was directed to what was once the largest building in the British Empire. From there I was sent to churches both Anglican and Roman Catholic. Windsor Station, once a hub of Canada’s railways, was a disappointment up close, but from the outside, it was reminiscent of some medieval castle. Its grey stone walls and battlements loomed up. This wasn’t a cathedral to the railways, but a statement of Imperial power. The tourist guide, in its calm and collected way, reminded one that Canada was one of the Dominions, but it was more than that. It was a powerful, rich and important part of the Empire and later became even more than that. The plaques in the railway station setting out its history did so in the context of shared history and roots. The shared experience was not something to be blushed over but stated and remembered calmly. The governments of Canada and Great Britain had stepped up to the challenges of the twentieth century, I read. Empire. Partnership. But history. I couldn’t feel that partnership, nor sense the bonds of commonality, as I walked around Montreal, but I could see the lapidary monuments of their forging.

IMAG0192 (451x800)Old Montreal. Cobbled streets, excellent architecture, tourist bars and tat-shops. The river, a sight of the bridge, a weird looking possible light house, a fort and some sort of mishmash of square looking houses climbing up the opposite bank. Pride of place had, of course, to go, not to the over done Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal, with its obligatory entrance ticket fee (so fitting for a House of God, I am sure you will agree; the cleric collecting the lucre certainly did),  but to Nelson’s Column. Actually, it really did get pride of place. In front of both the Town Hall and the Courts of Justice, it looked down a pedestrianised drag and out to the water beyond. The face on the money might not have been the sole contender for ‘best thing about Montreal’.

No. I am being facetiously unfair on the place. The area around the theatres was very pleasant and there were lots of decent looking restaurants. The locals were, on occasion, slightly trying. Witness the young man who, to impress his friends, took a long hard drag on his not-quite-legal roll-up cigarette and blew the smoke straight into my face, angling his own in order to get the best angle.

Montreal appeared to me a place that could be wonderful to live in. For a tourist on a short trip, it had ample to offer. For the sporty, it was in Canada, home of the great outdoors. Its bars and restaurants catered for all tastes. Yet it did not excite.


New York: water, wallets and museums

“Stay hydrated. Drink some New York City water.”

Perhaps only in America could the drinking of water on a vaguely sunny morning be dressed up as patriotic at and, further, one which could be considered part of your civic duties. I almost felt guilty when I slipped on by, passing without response the smile she flashed.

I had landed the night before. If high terminal numbers make you excited, and make you think of modern efficiency, JFK will disappoint. Terminal 7 is little more than a shed. The line for immigration quickly swells to overflowing. The queue snakes back, out of the immigration hall and out of the corridor leading to the immigration hall. We moved quickly enough, and the actual officer was (amazingly) pleasant and relaxed. He even struck up a little badinage as he brought his little rubber stamp down. Past immigration things slowed considerably. Perhaps the baggage handlers were working to time as part of some industrial action. Whatever the cause, I cannot remember ever waiting so long for bag to appear. All the while the tannoy stammered through lists of names, presumably lost passengers. If JFK were to lose luggage as easily as it appeared to lose passengers then it was not going to auger well. Eventually may bag appeared, buried in a pile and not easily extricated. I left the airport over an hour and a half after landing. It was getting late by the time I entered the hotel’s 1930s lobby.

Size is what most struck me after I ducked my civic hydration responsibilities. It isn’t just that the buildings are tall. They carry a weight with them as well. The wide roads and grid structure of the city reinforce this sense of weight and presence. The buildings seem to tower over one, reducing the man on the street from any significance until he is nothing more than an ant in the formicating crowds. It isn’t unfriendly, but it isn’t friendly. It is impassive. The New York that delights and excites eluded me. I was offered one access route to it, but it is a city that parties too late for me. I didn’t quite have the energy to start the evening at eleven o’clock, not when I had landed so late the night before and had work the morning after. Feeble excuses I know… Strike one.

So if you cannot carouse, what can you do in New York? Shop and see the museums. Despite its reputation as a shopping centre par excellence, I failed to find the one thing I was looking for. My distress at the prices of wallets in China was at least partly prompted by the partial disintegration of my own wallet. I thus set to looking for a replacement. New York is awash with wallets, but ask for one with a coin purse and the options dwindle. More than once I was told “Yes, we have one.” One. That at least was better than when they had none. New Yorkers don’t use coins, and there was more than one sales assistant who couldn’t really understand why I should want a coin compartment, or indeed coins to put in it. My search was not entirely fruitless. I did find a few, but somehow I couldn’t quite bring myself to stump up the hundreds of dollars the price tag called for. Strike two.

It was just as well that I hadn’t emptied my bank account on a wallet because museums in New York are not cheap. One is spoilt in England: the museums are free. So too in China, and where not, the prices are low, as they are throughout Asia. At least at the Metropolitan an elaborate ticketing system with tiered prices and stickers that must be worn as proof of purchase disguises that fact that the $25 admission fee is a suggested donation. This is slightly curious when one considers the museum’s membership scheme. Designed for people who really value the museum and who want to support it (one assumes financially as well as in boosting visitor numbers), membership reduces the required donation.

Entrance policy inconsistencies aside, I did visit the Metropolitan and I had a walk through Central Park. I didn’t fail on the third strike as well. One out of three is what I will have to be happy with. I suspect it is better than what my strike rate would be in a real game of baseball.