Tiramisu in Tashkent

“Beef or pasta?”

“Yes please.”

“Sir, which one – beef or pasta?”


“Sir, you have to make a choice.”

The steward was sitting on his haunches, reaching for the trays in the back of the lower levels of the cart. They have a strict timetable and he was getting impatient. The guy sitting next to me was smiling and nodding, oblivious to the question or the context. It was now all up to me – charade the hell out of this one baby! OK, in a split second: how do you charade pasta? No, that way lies perdition. Beef. Easy enough, and if he does not like it, he can signal the other one, whatever the other choice might be – pasta, chicken, snake, but at least he’ll know it’s not beef.

“[making a horn sign on my head] Mooooo.”

“[laughing] Please yes.”

“[Relieved] Thanks. Beef or pasta?”


First time in Tashkent. First time in Uzbekistan. First time in Central Asia.

For most Iranians “Tashkent” and “Uzbekistan” are exotic but somewhat abstract.  Mention “Samarkand” or “Bukhara”, and suddenly there is a sense of wonder and kinship: eyes open wide; the mind reaches deep into childhood memories of romantic poems and heroic tales.  Most Iranians – at least, those with a passing sense of their history and literature – have some sense of these legendary cities, their landscape, and its majestic rivers, even if it is inchoate, distant, wrapped in myth and mystery. The ties that bind the Persianate to these jewels of the Steppes go back 2500 years, through tragedy and sublime poetry and art. And here I was, in the tomb of Tamerlane (part of the tragedy) marvelling at the craft of the Persian (Isfahani) architect who designed and built it 600 years ago (part of the art).

But I am running ahead of myself.

2021 was a year of sadness and of transition.

Early in the year, I lost my grandmother, in part to complications from COVID. She had had a long (102) and fruitful life; for all the challenges of the pandemic, her children saw her before she passed away. I wish I had been there, to say goodbye to her, and to support my mother in her loss. COVID also claimed a cousin. The year ended with the passing of a beloved aunt in Iran; I wish I could have been in Canada, to support my father in his loss.

As with many others in this, the Age of the Pandemic, I also embarked on a new professional adventure. Having finished a really interesting WTO case (the subject matter, the client, and the fact that I argued the case in French), the second half of the year saw me launch an independent consultancy. Although of course risky, this has given me the flexibility to seek and accept projects outside the normal framework of a US law firm. This is how I found myself travelling to Tashkent as the year came to a close and right before Omicron re-upended the world.

Tashkent is a city of broad boulevards, elegant roundabouts, and Swiss drivers. (More than once, with some trepidation we stepped onto the zebra-crossing of the six-lane streets, and each time the cars stopped, hazard lights flashing. When my taxi dared cross a zebra-crossing while a pedestrian was still on it, the police stopped him immediately ….) While there, we were working very closely with Uzbek officials from different government ministries; all of our interlocutors, without exception, were professional, highly trained, and hospitable – the local food was exceptionally good and elements of it reminded me of my days in Iran.

After a week of meetings and presentations and shaking hands and exchanging business cards, we took the fast train (“Afrosiyob”) to Samarkand. It took about two hours to go from the well-ordered boulevards of the new capital to the relative chaos of a Central Asian city, and from the gleaming government buildings to the turquoise domes and minarets of an ancient capital.

The singular claim to fame of Samarkand these days is that it was the seat of Tamerlane, or Amir Teimour, the XIV c. conqueror adopted by Uzbekistan as its national hero.

Iran has a deeply conflicted relationship with Teimour, and with the Steppes, and the visit to Teimour’s tomb was an interesting exercise in cultural and historical translation. To understand the reason why, we need to go back a few centuries.

In the XIII century and under the Khwarazm dynasty, Iran and the Persianate were thriving – independent, unified, connected to and connecting the East and the West through a network of trade routes and magnificent cities, with universities and scientific centres creating and propagating knowledge, and, by then, a 350‑year tradition of Persian poetry culturally linking the Persianate together from the Oxus to the Tigris, from Samarkand to the gates of Baghdad. Well, it couldn’t last, of course. Sultan Mohammad Khwarazmi attacked a Mongol caravan and killed Genghis’s ambassadors, and what followed does not need further elaboration. Only that Genghis spared the province of Fars, the home of Iran’s greatest romantic and social poets, Hafiz and Sa’di.

Fast forward a century and change, Teimour launches his career of conquest, ravages and plunders Iran, and this time, Fars is not spared. What’s more, although Genghis’s grandson eventually established himself in Iran and started something of a building project, and although Teimour’s successors eventually landed in India and established a strong empire there, he and they had nothing to do with Iran’s later recovery (in the 1500s under the Safavids). This is why, in Iran, Teimour has the distinction of having a worse reputation than Genghis.

And so I stood in his mausoleum, listening to the guide telling us about Teimour’s glorious conquests, his piety, his respect for his teachers (his burial place is literally at the foot of that of his teacher), and his love for his main wife (there is a whole complex built in her memory), my mind wandered to loftier subjects – the uses, misuses, and abuses of history.

Or, I should say, the relevance – indeed, the centrality – of perspective. For, Teimour to Uzbekistan is as Nader Shah to Iran; there are statues of Nader littered all over the country. And Teimour to Iran (as I stood in front of the map of his conquests) is as Nader Shah is to India: his biggest claim to fame is of course the plunder of the Moghul treasury of Delhi (along with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands) that led to the collapse of the Empire and the rise of the East India Company. And so it was that when I joked about Teimour’s utter devastation of the Iranian civilisation, the guide reminded me that at least Teimour rebuilt and beautified Samarkand – Genghis did not leave any cities behind, only rubble and ashes and rotting corpses.

There is that.

Samarkand’s monuments were built by Iranian architects Teimour brought back with him from Isfahan and Shiraz; in the bazars, I spoke Persian to the merchants. It felt like home. I mean, I even have a cousin named Teimour.

Somewhere in our excursions someone asked how old the city was. The guide mentioned that Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, had visited the city. I recalled Herodotus: yes, Cyrus had been here, but as a corpse, after his army was ambushed by Tomyris, the Queen of the Massagetae. All in all, we have a complex relationship with our neighbours and cultural kin.

Back to Tashkent, and a late evening walk to a local café where I ordered star-anise tea (I hate anise) and had an indifferent Napoleon (there are better ones in Geneva – and in Toronto), but the atmosphere was delightful and the fact of being there, in a café late in the evening in Uzbekistan, was a cultural experience all on its own.

It reminded me of my first night there: we had decided to stay in the hotel for dinner, and ordered basic hotel fare. That’s how ended up with Tiramisu. In Tashkent. Next time, I know better.

Bitter Lemon

He was impeccably dressed: starched white shirt, classical club tie, shoes shined to reflecting pool standard, stylish black-rimmed glasses. A neatly cut and coiffed full head of white hair topped a typically Germanic face. He walked with determination and purpose, inviting the world to challenge him, commanding the earth beneath his feet to stand still as he trod. He crossed the breakfast room right in front of my table, impossible not to notice, and walked over to the coffee machine. A commercial Nespresso machine common in every office on the continent, with a slot for a pod and two buttons indicating different cup sizes. He selected his coffee-pod with care (matching the colours against the legend). And then, utter confusion. A man, a pod, a common usage coffee machine with a single slot and two buttons. The businessman stood there for a good two minutes, examining the pod, the machine, his cup, the pot of milk next to the machine and back to the pod; he looked up and around, terror-stricken; then back to the pod, the machine and the irrelevant pot of milk. It occurred to me that he had probably not made his own coffee this side of German Reunification – or unification, for that matter. He looked up again, seeking a helpline. Because this is Belgium, the waiters were nowhere to be found. The businessman stood there, pod in hand, puzzling over the slot-and-button contraption.

And then the shadow of a smile. Help was arriving. A woman. Then his face fell. Not that kind of woman.

She was determined, walking in fast short strides, breaking through glass obstacles. A no nonsense consultant, I thought; American. Impeccably dressed – in a manner, on the principle that even a broken clock is right at least twice a day: tight grey sweats desperately clinging to ample curves, running shoes, unwashed hair, furiously thumbing her iPhone. As she saw the Nespresso-befuddled businessman her disdain for tradition, for authority, for that sort of palpable male helplessness became visible on her face. With an air of authority that you get to have only when you are wearing too-tight sweatpants and running shoes in a sea of white shirts and polished brogues, she walked to the machine, placed her cup under the spout and pressed a button.

The businessman’s face showed deepened confusion.

The consultant looked into the cup.

No coffee there, only the bilgewater you get when you forget to insert a pod.  With a flourish that could only mean, “The French can’t even get coffee right” (this was Brussels, but so what?), she set aside the grey water and turned on her heels. So did the businessman, with strides no less confident than before. Each looked convinced – or convincingly pretended – that nothing good can come out of a Swiss coffee machine in a Belgian hotel owned by an Anglo-French conglomerate.

April – sunny – 24 Celsius. If it weren’t for the cigarette-smoking cellphone-talking driver who nearly ran me over (green light on a cross-walk; I know better than to take risks here) while making an illegal right turn into oncoming traffic in a one-way street (she audibly swore at the driver who pointed out the One Way sign), I could not have guessed I was in Brussels. But as soon as you see the insouciance of the homicidal drivers, you realise where you are. Well, that, and the waffles. And Grand-Place, in my view at any rate the most beautiful central square in any European city (and yes, that includes Prague).

It has been five years since I was last in Brussels. The city has changed. I was at the hotel I had stayed at nearly twenty years ago on my first ever business trip to Brussels. The hotel has not changed – really, not even the fixtures, right down to the bathroom telephones. Or the elevators. Or the breakfast menu. The bathroom was clean but suffering from use. Nostalgia can be a powerful motivator; it is also a great disappointer. And the disappointments did not stop at the hotel. I went looking for favourite restaurants; some have already gone out of business. I ate at one; the food was not as good as I recalled. There was no way to tell if the cooking had deteriorated or my palate was more refined. Probably a bit of both.

But nostalgia is not just about disappointment; sometimes, it brings unalloyed joy. The sights were still impressive. The Belgian waffle – of the heavy, Liège variety, rather than the fluffy Brussels type – is the closest thing to orgasm you can get in a paper napkin. Even simpler: Schweppes Bitter Lemon. A concoction of tonic water, lemon and sugar, it is no longer produced in North America; good thing too, otherwise, I would be rotting my teeth preparing for “My 600 lb Life” drinking the stuff. I still remember my first night as a diplomat in Brussels, in 1998: arriving at my beautiful apartment after a long train-ride from San Sebastian, walking down to a Night Shop, buying Bitter Lemon, coming home, sitting in the balcony, sipping the drink, surveying the city that stretched beyond the 14th century Abbey right across the street from me as the sun set, thinking, “I’m here.”

Bitter Lemon is the perfect balance of bitter, sour and sweet – almost a reflection of life itself.

You can’t ever go back and it’s foolish to think you can recapture those lost moments. It does not mean you should not try. Sometimes, things are exactly as they ought to be. Like Bitter Lemon. Like old friends.

I did manage to catch up with friends old and new – one of whom I had not seen in seventeen years – though not all the ones I had hoped to see. The courses I was taking were excellent; the meetings with Commission officials were productive; despite all the walking, I still gained weight. Ah, Brussels.

My last morning in Brussels. I was sad to be leaving, not knowing when I would be back again (mostly because of my friends), still feeling somewhat nostalgic about my lost life as a diplomat. As I read the FT, sipped my orange juice and contemplated the busy months ahead, the drama between the businessman, the consultant and the coffee machine played itself out, apparently no one but me noticing. I put the juice down, got up, walked to the machine, selected my pod, put it in the slot and pressed the button. As I returned to my table, the waiter brought my hot milk – without my asking this time around. I sat down, nostalgia evaporated, vaguely satisfied with myself that at least, I can work a Nespresso machine.

Destination Vancouver

There’s a great new place in Gastown, called The Slaughterhouse. We have to check it out.”

Wow – that sounds great. So what does it serve?”

Oh, the entire Looney Tunes cast – Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Tweetie, Pepe …”

Sick. Thursday night?”

Well, of course the conversation did not go like that: not even a place called l’Abattoir would serve skunk. But there you see the essence of marketing, in those two words: the one evokes blood and guts and the awful stench of death, the other an other-worldly, insouciant, ironic sophistication. And the restaurant was, if anything, quite sophisticated.

There were rabbit (“rabbit breast stuffed with rabbit legs, served on a bed of greens and wild rice”), duck and pork on the menu; and scallops, which I had (“served with grilled porcini mushrooms and lightly breaded and sautéed zucchini rings”). Before the scallops, there was smoked sturgeon, which I had not had for nearly twelve years. (Last time was at a Persian restaurant in Brussels; grilled, not smoked, as we used to do in Ye Olde Countrie.) A lovely Loire red complemented the meal, and superlative company completed the evening: I was there with a former student – already a successful CEO of a start-up – and his new bride, a successful tax lawyer in her own right.

The food on board the Canadian (www.sarkesh.net) had been good, if not inspired. And no matter how good the chef and the restaurant, three meals a day for three consecutive days tries the patience of anyone not used to a boarding school regiment. It was already great to be back on terra firma and an actual bed and shower; we particularly welcomed a choice of restaurants and venues.

Our first culinary experience in Vancouver was at the Raincity Grill, recommended by a friend from Winnipeg. Because that is what friends from Winnipeg do; very helpful when it comes to restaurants in Vancouver, those Winnipeggers. (Or is it Winnipeggians? Winnipeggishes? Winnipegites? Winnipegois? My spell-checker gives me the same red squiggly line for all variations, so I am assuming they are equally wrong. Or right.) Overlooking English Bay, the restaurant gave every possible vibe of being a tourist trap, including a few other tourists from the train, but – Jim, this shows much I trust you – we pressed ahead … and were duly impressed. (For lunch a couple of days later we tried out the other recommended restaurant and were appropriately satisfied.)


 Food is not the only thing I think about. Being vain and not inclined to bulimia, I do worry about what to do with the calories I put into myself, especially considering that I pay little attention to how many I consume. As it happens, Vancouver begs calorie expenditure, and so there was less to worry about on the revenue side.

The next day began with glorious sunshine and, naturally, a long walk/hike in Stanley Park. The place is simply enchanting. Walking along the seawall, the view changes at every turn. Cutting through the inland walkways, you pass under massive firs, around a waterlily-covered beaver lake, through a rose-garden and by a natural lagoon.


After lunch, we headed (walked) to the waterfront for coffee. I remembered Canada Place from my last trip to Vancouver, but nothing else looked familiar. There is of course excess in all the glass towers – two Fairmont hotels, side by side? Really? – but then, there is also the odd gem. The new Convention Centre, grass roof and all – yes, that is not a spelling mistake, it has a grass-covered roof – reflects the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and the forests; it is a fine addition to the harbour.

Vancouver has been selected “the most liveable city in the world” for most of the last ten years by people who know these things. It is not perfect. Like most peninsular cities that rely either on towers or the hinterland for growth and living space, Vancouver has a congestion and price problem. The bridges going into the city are famously turned into parking lots at rush hour; a new two bedroom apartment in downtown Vancouver starts at over $6-700,000 – and income levels for the average Vancouverite do not really reflect these prices. And yet, for the throngs who basked in the sun in Granville Island eating their lunch, for the businessmen jogging in Stanley Park, for the topless sunbathers in Kits, and for the couples who sat, hand in hand, on the beach around English Bay to watch the sunset, housing prices, though relevant, are just background data.

After all, it is not the glass towers or the grass roofs that make the city; there are mountains and parks and oceans elsewhere; and good restaurants are not native or unique to Vancouver. The city is cosmopolitan and vibrant because its citizens make it so. They are blessed by nature – cherries, apricots, peaches and grapes from the Okanagan are everywhere, while in Ottawa we are lucky to find local beets and potatoes* – but it is what they do with the bounties of nature that should make Vancouverites proud of their city.

[* My buddy notes that I am being unduly harsh, as Ontario does have peaches and cherries – and very good ones, too. I was, of course, exaggerating, for effect … we do not have only beets and potatoes; there are also local onions and parsnips, and the occasional fiddleheads.]

If you look for a note of sarcasm in my praise For Vancouver so far look in vain.


But I have not gone soft. I will indulge in a mini-rant in closing this missive.

Unless you have pre-paid your hotel by the internet, the hotel bill is one of the last interactions you have with a city. If you have had a good experience, the hotel bill should not spoil it; if a bad one, it should not exacerbate it.

Let me be clear: it is not the size of the, er, bill bill that matters. Within reason, if you know your room rate, and you should know your room rate, you should know roughly how much you will end up paying. And of course, any traveller by now is used to a multiplicity of “charges” and “fees” tacked on any transport-related bill.

(Or, any bill, for that matter. In Singapore, I ordered two items and got a bill for four. There was a charge for bread – I had not ordered it and had not touched it, but accepted it as the price of doing business. There was also a charge for “stuff”. I asked the waiter what “stuff” the “stuff’ was referring to, given that in front of me were one dinner plate, one beer bottle and an untouched basket of bread. And cutlery. With nonchalance bordering on insolence, the waiter replied, “Well, stuff.” After some further discussion, I had the item, and the bread, removed from the bill.) And yet, there has to be a limit.

Now, the “room tax” is so common that it is pointless to rail against it. But a daily Eco Energy fee by a hotel that markets itself as being eco-friendly? Worse, a “marketing fee”? I booked the hotel through their own reservation desk; I now have to pay for the privilege of having found the hotel on my own, and having called in to make reservations? This really should not be the last thing I remember from and about Vancouver …

It is a contagion all around. On a typical Air Canada flight, additional charges labelled “fuel”, “departure” and “tax” add up to well over half the total fee. EasyJet charges as low as $20 for a flight and $30 for your luggage. There is an airline in the US that charges as high as $45 for a carry on. What next? “The Nike sneakers, sir, are only $10; you have to pay a $75 ‘Michael Jordan’ marketing fee.” Or, “The carbonated water and caramel mix are 3 cents per ten fluid ounces; we just ask that you pay a $1.22 Coke is it! membership fee.”

Then again, maybe that level of transparency would bring some sanity to the market.

Pics to follow.

Next: On the High Seas.

The Rockies Chronicles: Day three

[Photomontage download: Go West]

One of Agatha Christie’s most celebrated novels is Murder on the Orient Express. I won’t keep you in too much suspense and reveal – Spoiler Alert! – that it is about a murder. On the Orient Express. Despite the relative complexity of the title, the plot line is simple: there is a murder on a rolling train, and then the train grinds to a halt in the middle of a snowstorm. Was the murderer someone on the train (in the same car) or someone who came on board from one of the unpronounceable Yugoslav stops en route for that express purpose? I won’t give away the solution, only to say – another Spoiler Alert!! – that Poirot does indeed solve the murder.

The novel was made into three movies. The best version, at least in my view, is from 1974, with Albert Finney playing detective. He gives the performance of his life. The Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman won a Supporting Actress Oscar – her third – for playing a Swedish governess. She did a great job with the Swedish accent. It is not clear, however, whether she got it because she was sick or because she managed to utter the words “little brown babies” without breaking out into a hysterical laughter. Aside from the iffy Oscar and a stellar cast, the movie is know for an amazing score and a beautifully-shot train departure scene.

None of which would be of any relevance at all had it not been for the stop at Melville, Saskatchewan and the conversation that flowed into the third day of the trip.

The inspiration was not so much Melville as the Melville train station. Or what had once been the Melville train station. Or what we thought might have been the Melville train station. It was a relatively good-sized building, now fallen into disrepair and disuse. Given its size, we wondered if it had ever been more than a train station – assuming it had ever been the train station – and if so, whether CP had had some sort of a “Melville Manor” hotel at the site. … You can see the rest. I mean, let’s be honest, any place called “Melville Manor” demands a murder or two to go with it.

And that’s how The Melville Manor Murders was born.

In composing a murder mystery, once the location is selected you need a victim. The victim does not need to be compelling, as long as he or she is distinctive. Moreover, the victim – even if you know nothing about him or her – should, through simple details, evoke either pity or disgust. In the case of our middle-of-Saskatchewan train station murder, we started with the name: Olga Blavatska. The rest followed: “a woman of a certain age”, found dead, strangled, in a cheap dress and expensively done nails and make-up.

You also need a prime suspect, and the more icky the person or his or her appearance, the better. How about a swarthy, foppish Eastern European diplomat? A dipsomaniac. Unsubtle womanizer – think “blue dress”. Condescending to the staff and unpleasant to the other guests. Does not like to bathe. Has to be him, the guests whisper. Naturally, it would not be a mystery if the prime suspect were the real killer. Our diplomat has to be found dead in a swamp the morning after, bludgeoned to death by a lead pipe. Or, this being the trainyards of Melville, Saskatchewan, a two-by-four.

When you are going through the Prairies with no Wi-Fi and no mobile reception, you do end up spending a lot of time talking. Mostly to yourself, but occasionally you find an ear you can abuse. Our conversation (me talking, the rest suffering) of the second day overflowed into the third, mostly because of the detective. We couldn’t fix him. He had to be hard-drinking and morally suspect, corrupt to the core, of course. But no dolt: look past the fact that he wakes up in his own vomit every morning, and you discover that he really does have a knack for solving murders. Underneath the cold and heartless exterior, there would be an even colder, more heartless bastard struggling to break free. We could not settle on a name, though; the debate started in Saskatchewan and was finally settled in Edmonton through the intervention of one of the other (real) passengers: Zed Protheroe. The detective, that is, not the passenger. In honour of the birthplace of the detective, the second novel would be called Body in the Observation Car. We don’t yet know who will be the victim. Probably a foppish Eastern European diplomat; the prime suspect, a woman of a certain age, in an expensive dress with chewed-through nails.

The two-volume Detective Protheroe mysteries having found their direction and characters, we settled down, after Jasper, to enjoy the amazing spectacle of the Rockies. Rivers, mountains, bridges, tunnels, waterfalls, glaciers in the distance, deep and wide valleys, forbidding peaks, fog and cloud and rain and sunshine … The scenery is every bit as magnificent as the postcards tell you, and then some.

You could tell by the hushed voices, the unseemly early scramble for seats in the Observation Car, and the fact that some even seemed to be wearing adult diapers, so they don’t have to give up their spot for the duration of the ride through the Rockies. I exaggerate.

As the day wound down, we went down to the dining car for our last full dinner, facing a setting sun, running along the North Thompson River.

In Murder on the Orient Express, Ingrid Bergman’s character was joined by a stellar cast of counts, countesses and colonial colonels on board. I was not, of course, expecting to rub shoulders with royalty but you do wonder, sometimes, whom you might run into on a train crossing the country. We did have at least one Very Important Person sitting right in front of us for the Rockies. But the human highlight of the evening, and indeed the whole trip, was the company at our last dinner.

A retired English couple. One had been born and raised in the Middle East, and had specialised in Byzantine and Middle Eastern Art. I asked what she thought of the theories one of my favourite art critics – a Very Important Person in his own right – and she mentioned that she had been a student of his. Suddenly, the author I had devoured, the presenter I had watched on TV, the Art Historian whose biography I had read, was one person removed from me. In the Rockies, in a train dining car. The husband was an astronomer. He was telling us of party tricks one of his mathematician friends plays; I asked him about the latest science book I had read – an obscure experiment in Texas to detect gravity waves; the party trickster was the widow of the author of the gravity experiment … if the evening had dragged on, we would have ended up long lost first cousins. No countesses, but the next best thing: a delightful couple who put us one degree of separation away from two authors on my bookshelf, one of whom has been an artistic and philosophical hero of mine. This is how life improves on art …

The Adventure continues: Day two

August 6, 2012

This morning we finally left Ontario. After about 30 hours. It’s quite remarkable, in fact, how large the province is, and even more remarkable how much of it is so flat, so green, so swampy, so uniform, so desolate. That is, until you get to the top of Lake Superior. The bit right before Manitoba is amazing, especially as the sun rises. Rocky hills, lakes, rivers, forests … but arranged in odd and far more vivid ways. And then, you hit the flatlands, and you know you are in a different world. The Prairies.



The local wildlife has been entertaining. The homo sapiens trainturiticus comes in a variety of shapes and colours, and appears to have a decidedly varied home base.

For the most part, it is of the Polar variety: ample insulation topped by white fur. The Polar trainturisticus has difficulty navigating the narrow passageways of our moving maze, but the other animals in the maze soon discover that in the face of a Polar in motion, the only thing to do is to retreat, find a corner to squeeze into or a doorway to hide away in. When at rest, especially in a choice seat in the Dome, the Polar is practically immovable.

The Talker is rare, but given the volume and vehemence of his roar (the Talker, alone among species, comes only in the male sex) he appears to be everywhere, all at once, at all times. Despite its being so rare, the Talker has been differentiated into the ad nauseum and ad argumentam subspecies. The former has the capacity, over breakfast, lunch or dinner, during coffee or tea time, or even while running away from the Polar and ducking for safety, to hold forth a conversation with no beginning, no end, and no content, usually at a rising volume. The latter has two calls in its natural habitat. Being only male, the species does not have a mating call; rather, biologists consider its natural call to be an existential one: without it, the subspecies consider itself dead. The call consists in two variations of a single theme: “In my opinion”, and “With respect, you are wrong.” The call remains at a steady volume, thereby driving its victims into a frenzy of helpless flutter.

The Canadian also comes in two subspecies: french and other. On the whole, they appear to be relatively agile navigating the maze, and limit their calls, mating or otherwise, to four short sounds, “interesting”, “very interesting,” “wow” and “even more interesting;” the french subspecies appears to be able to make four additional sounds that, as at least some biologists argue, could mean more or less the same: “intréssant”, “très intréssant”, “wow” and “je dirait même plus …”*.

* For Tin Tin aficionados, this is an inside joke.

I am told that this is a nonexhaustive list.

So we are in the Prairies. For the first two hours out of Winnipeg, the land was as flat as legend would have it. The horizon being so wide and far, I thought I could actually take the time to write.

It is not as easy as it sounds. Our car, where my small one-person cabin is, is in the middle of the train. The social car, where I tend to park myself (it is called the Park Car, perhaps for that reason), happens to be at the end of the train, some eleven cars away.

The Park Car

That’s not just 250 meters, but twenty two sets of doors, guaranteed encounter with at least three Polars (and having to back off and retrace my steps) through narrow corridors as the train lurches and heaves side to side, occasionally throwing you into an unsuspecting sap’s cabin. And, of course, from where I sit, each change of gear takes two trips to the cabin. There and Back was Bilbo’s tale; it could well be mine, each time I want to change the computer stuff for the camera bag, or vice versa.

Which is what happened: I left the camera and took the computer. But – you know the only way the story could continue: as soon as I sat down, the horizon closed in and narrowed; the flatlands gave way; rivers and hills and valleys and bridges started showing up. And me with the computer on my lap, describing the wildlife inside, while life outside was passing me by. Literally.

This sense of utter loss – an entire thirty-eight seconds worth of picture-taking opportunity wasted, gone, gone forever as I wrote this missive – is all pervasive. I get up to brave the maze and the Polars and risk being trapped or attacked by the Talkers to go exchange the computer for the camera. And bring instead with me the quaintest thing of all – a notebook. If only I remembered how to write …

The evening of the second day; God did not rest and the train keeps on moving, pressing to its evening destination, Saskatoon. We will be let out for thirty minutes, to get some fresh air, stretch the legs, move about, before heading back to our moving cells. The walk this morning in Winnipeg was good. We saw the overbudget and still unfinished Human Rights Museum – about as good a common on the subject as the museum could muster – visited the tomb of Louis Riel and ended the talk with my purchasing a three-litre bucket of sour cherries. Now there’s a memory to have of a city …

The Canadian Human Rights Museum, Winnipeg

Melville, Saskatchewan




Break-in and Ski

She startled me, far more than could be imagined just looking at her: a retired elementary school teacher, with big thick glasses and a tuft of cropped white hair. My hand was still on the handle of the back-door as I was trying to force it open; pants wet and muddy up to the knees; hair wet and matted to my head; unshaven; eyes bloodshot; a single track of footprints in the deep snow walking through the back of the chalet. Looks could be deceiving, to be sure, but there was no denying that I was trying to break into a $1.4 million chalet in the middle of a blinding blizzard.

“Can I help you,” she had asked, and repeated, after my initial startled grunt.

“The key was supposed to be under the mat, but I can’t find it,” I mumbled. “Er … The other guest must have taken it by mistake.”

There was no truth to the story, of course. But, in my defence, I did not know that then.

Most important lesson to remember: if you’re caught trying to break in, make sure you believe your own cover story.

Françoise, the kindly neighbour, was understanding. “Come on in, have some tea, and we will sort it out.” You invited a perfect stranger in for tea? Her son later asked.

And I did. I had no choice. The chalet was expertly locked – God knows, I had tried every window and both doors, the blinds, the shutters, and no give – and it was obvious, after twenty minutes in the cold checking every possible angle short of breaking down the door, that I could not get in without a key. Well, not without an accomplice. I was wet from the snow and sweat; the blizzard that had begun that morning was not letting up; I badly needed to pee.

So I went in, dried my hair, visited the loo, had a cup of tea, and told her my tale of woe.

I had just arrived from Canada. After waiting for the shuttle from the airport for a couple of hours, I managed to locate the driver who, being Swiss, had been maddeningly on time – that is, not early. The shuttle left me in a parking lot “around the corner” from the chalet. Some “corner”: 1.5 kilometers up the mountain, down the street and up the alley. In a blistering blizzard. With a ski bag, a backpack and a suitcase.

Françoise, the kindly neighbour, remembered me from days past. Samantha and I used to rent the chalet years ago; I had been there again only last year. And here I was again: at our old chalet, and no key. There as at least an air of plausibility to the unlikely story.

“That’s OK; even if we can’t find someone to open the chalet, you can sleep upstairs,” she said. You offered him my room – my bed? The son was beside himself.

The fire was roaring. We chatted about teaching, students, retirement, Canada, and the snow. I still could not get hold of Samantha. “Your pants are wet – my son is the same size as you, if you want to change. Can I make you something to eat?” You offered him my pants? The son was incredulous.

She poured me some more tea. Her warmth and hospitality were wonderful. The fire, and her kindness, reminded me of one of Iran’s greatest modern poems: Arash.

It’s snowing

Downy whiteness covers the cliffs

The mountains are silent; the valleys pining

Rocky pathways yearning for a passing caravan

Were there no smoke rising from lonely cottages

Or if a flickering fire did not bring a message of hope

What would one do in a despairing, bitter blizzard?

They opened the door to me

They opened their hearts to me

And soon I knew that around the crackling fireplace

A story was unfolding …

The fire was roaring; the tea was hot. After an hour, Françoise found a key and opened the chalet. You let a squatter into someone else’s chalet? Are you mad? The son almost called the police at that point.

As I walked in, Samantha called to tell me that … I was at the wrong place. She had not rented the old chalet this year; the new one was across town.

Still wet, more tired and less cold, I picked up the ski bag, the suitcase and the backpack, walked down the alley, down the street and up the mountain, and hailed a cab.

I did not have the heart to tell Françoise what had happened. Ran into her in the spa a week later; she told me about her son … we had a good hearty laugh. I felt like an imbecile. She treated me like the village idiot.

The skiing the next day, and for the days afterwards, was well worth the hassle. Lots of powder, not too many people; I skied hard the first day, which meant that my legs were like wet noodles the next two days. I took a day off, and tried an “easy” day after, but ended up skiing hard in any event. On the last day, the sun came out. The sky was gloriously blue; the slopes amazingly white; the mountains clear; the air crisp … three sneezes and a few sniffles later, I realised that skiing was out of the question. Or, it could be attempted, if I were willing to spend the next two weeks in bed with a fever. I sat on the sunny balcony and read a book instead. That afternoon I returned to Geneva.

This is the third time I was in Geneva in a year. One of the most amazing things about the place is, of course, not about the place at all, but about the people, and specifically, the friends I left behind: how each of them has managed, from year to year, to find new challenges, to move in new directions, to explore new paths. The city has stayed remarkably the same; my friends continue to grow, and change – for the better. Perhaps that is why we have stayed friends in the first place; that is why I keep wanting to go back – it is not the cheese fondue …

The return was a bit of a challenge. The half-sniffles turned into a full-blown cold; on arrival, I changed suitcases at home and took the train to Kingston to meet my students, and then off to Toronto for work. Now I’m back, recovered and refreshed. Hard to believe that just over two weeks ago I was caught trying to break into a Swiss chalet; two days after that, I was standing at 3000 meters, looking over a frozen Mont Gelé, snow-covered peaks and cloudy valleys; a week after I was having dinner at my favourite restaurants with close friends.

Mad Ludwig’s Castle


She stood there, arms raised in defensive posture; legs apart; tears streaming down her face.


She cried again, as she defended “her” stuff (not yet bought; in the shopping cart) from the invader (a young boy twice her size, merely moving forward as the line moved ahead).

“Mine” is not a word that is used around my little niece Eliana at home, so it’s fairly easy to trace it to her interaction with other children at daycare. And we avoid the word for good reason: in context, it is a noxious thing to say. Especially in public. Especially to strangers.  Especially in respect of things that, well, you don’t even quite own yet.

But … the sheer courage of my little niece in standing up to the perceived attack on herstuff was remarkable. This was not a whiny, “mommy, Jack took my toy” kind of assertion of ownership; she stood there, all of 2.5 years old, arms up, determined to defend her stuff against perceived aggression by a much larger foe.

Another amazing moment in the life of my niece, who is the source of much of our amusement and enjoyment these days.

And another year gone by.

In some respects, this has been an uneventful year – the good sort (no illnesses; no disasters). Professionally, matters are calm (lost only one significant constitutional case; have not been fired yet); personally, things are quiet (no major trips; no serious announcements).

Since my Washington trip back in March, the only excursion worth noting was to Neuschwanstein. This is the famed cliff-top castle of the mad Ludwig of Bavaria that inspired Disney’s cartoonists and architects to come up with the turreted symbol of the company and to shape our collective idea of what a “fairytale castle” looks like.

Ludwig – whose brother died of madness and who was eventually sent to a sanatorium, where he perished (along with his psychologist) – had the original medieval cliff-top castle torn down so that he could build an, er, authentic one in its place, modelled and inspired, for additional authenticity, by Wagner’s operas. The castle looks magnificent and, indeed, “medieval” and “fairy-tale” like in its setting; it reminded me of all those “artist’s conception”s that we see of distant planets and gruesome murders: from the outside, it certainly looks like a XIX c. “artist’s conception” of what a medieval castle might look like new and, for that reason, it is beautiful and faintly reassuring.

Inside, it’s a different story. An entire floor was never finished (after Ludwig was committed, building stopped and the rest of the castle was turned into a museum); Ludwig’s room, covered in panelled and carved wood, took four years to finish; each major room has a different Wager opera motif. All of this is amusing, if mildly ludicrous, though neither remotely authentic nor aesthetically pleasing. I think all of the excesses of the castle, including the Wagnerian obsession, would have been easy to take and, in some measure at any rate, to admire, were it not for the pièce de résistance, the coup de grace, if you will: an indoor grotto. Yeah, really, including dripping fake stalactites. I always wanted to see the place; and I did. Proved yet again that listening to Wagner too much could be hazardous to your mental health.

And so it is – with a dubious artistic comment – that I bring to a close this note and my year.


The Two Saints

Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oddest churches I have set foot in.  It is split almost neatly in half by an inside wall and a tiny door, with the main tower presiding over the split.  On one side is the nave, a rather conventional early Gothic three-aisle hall for the faithful.  Ordinarily, the nave would be crossed by a transept (to make the sign of a cross), with a choir to follow, all in a relatively open space, so that the faithful could observe the Church rituals, the priest nibbling on the flesh of Christ and lustily quaffing his blood, the choir singing, etc.  The oddness of Canterbury is that the nave stops at an imposing set of stairs and a door, beyond which, behind massive stone walls, the Illuminati and the singers and the church leaders would sit and perform the rituals, removed from the riff-raff, it would seem.  Even with the door open, the altar cannot be seen from the floor of the main church, thus imposing a barrier between the priest and the commons that is far more formidable than the much grander and much more imposing St. Peter's in Rome.
My fascination – voire obsession – with churches Gothic and things English was not, however, the main reason that took me to Canterbury; discovering the odd architecture was a side-benefit.  I'd gone there on a non-believer's pilgrimage of sorts: to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, to get a better sense of this most towering of the Archbishops of Canterbury and a fascinating figure in English history, a man who is responsible (directly and indirectly) for some of the most interesting rituals of modern politics. 
Becket was chancellor to Henry II Plantagenet, about whom I have written elsewhere.  In their youth, they had been drinking and whoring buddies; as Chancellor, Becket continued to have a close relationship with Henry.  So close, in fact, that when the post of Archbishop became open, Henry, hoping for a compliant church, nominated his buddy for the position of its leader. (You can see that Bush's appointment of his cronies to high posts has a long provenance; although, of course, none could be compared to Becket in depth of character or of faith.) Becket, a dissolute rich chancellor, suffers an overnight transformation on elevation to the post of Archbishop.  This is not quite a Damascene conversion, but certainly a startling one.  The good friends – the King and Becket – have a falling out; Becket runs away to Europe, hiding in some Abbey in France; the Pope excommunicates Henry; the first real Church-State crisis in England begins in earnest.
None of which is remotely relevant to why I was interested in Becket, or why you should be.  Rather, the story involves a “problem to communicate“*, a Murder in the Cathedral** and public flagellation.  With a mix like that, how could you go wrong?
So where were we?  Oh yeah.  Becket in France; Henry excommunicated. 

Henry caves and Becket returns to England as head of the English church.  It was a difficult pill for Henry to swallow – what, with his wife (the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine) raising an army in civil war, his ego bruised and Becket back in England scheming, Henry was boxed in on all sides.  One night, after a hearty mill and a little more alcohol than prudent, Henry blurts out, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  His drinking buddies take him at his word – four of them get up, ride to Canterbury and kill Becket on the steps leading to the altar.  It is not known whether they were above the drinking limit for riding.
Well, you can see the cinematic possibilities immediately.  Or an episode of “Law and Order”.  The knights claimed they were following orders – anticipating the Nuremberg trials by about eight hundred years; Henry's defence was, “I didn't mean murder!”  Twinkies not having been invented, no one thought of the Twinkie defence.***  Bad business, all around.  Eventually, the King and the Church arrived at a compromise, the effects of which you can see to this day: the public apology and the shaming of the leader.  For Henry not only apologised, but actually walked barefoot to the Cathedral, stripped to his waist and got flagellated by the monks as penance for his intemperate outburst that led to the death of his former best friend.  Every time you see a politician come on TV to apologise for a moral blunder, you can thank Henry for having set the pattern.  And the effects were electrifying: with the church now on his side, Henry defeated Eleanor and imprisoned her for the next ten years; he managed to rule for another fifteen after the death of Becket and built the foundations of the English common law and the judiciary.   
There is, of course, one other point to this story. 

Becket's inflexibility in defence of the Church is, in our age, open to two divergent interpretations.  This, after all, was the Church that had, by 1170, launched two Crusades and was hardly a model of moral probity.  And Becket, a former English Chancellor, was giving precedence to what was in effect a foreign Church over the interests of his King and Country.  This same blind faith we see today, not only in the throngs of Muslim agitators and protesters, but in Hindu attacks on Muslims and in Fundamentalist Christian demonstrations in the US.  It is at once terrifying and comforting that Henry was as perplexed by all of this nine hundred years ago as we are now.  But that is only a negative way of looking at what was, for Becket at any rate, a positive and life-affirming force.  Becket's philosophical stance was in favour not just of the Church as a political organisation, and not of faith against reason, but of faith as foundation for hope – in an age marked by wretchedness for the masses and excess for the rulers.  His act of faith on the steps of the Canterbury Cathedral was, within that framework, a courageous stand against tyranny: the tyranny of a king who could get, by an ambiguous utterance, four knights in armour riding hard all night to kill an aged and defenceless priest at the altar of his own church.  I mean, if he could do that and get away with it, what else would he be able to get away with?
Some three-hundred and fifty years later, another inflexible Thomas, Sir Thomas More, also lost his life to the tyranny of an English king.  He too was defending a church that, by the middle of the XVI c., had lost all claim to moral or political leadership.  And yet, More stood up and, asked to make a oath that he could not sustain in his conscience, said, “No”.  The king, Henry VIII, removed More's head and leveled Becket's shrine – the latter act filled with symbolism – and proceeded to die of syphilis, his body bursting with pus upon his deathbed.
The Catholic Church sainted both men.  I prefer to think of Becket and More, however, as secular saints, the progenitors of the protections we enjoy today against the power of the State to whose overwhelming might we are subject no less than the serfs were five hundred or a thousand years ago.  This is why I made my pilgrimage to Canterbury.  For every time a citizen raises his or her voice against Power, against injustice, and forces a political leader to march barefoot to a public flagellation – even if metaphorically – we can thank the intemperate outburst of a drunken king and the inflexibility of a frail churchman, Thomas à Becket.  
* The line is from “Cool Hand Luke”; couldn't find my note book with my original thoughts ….
** This one is a play; see above.
*** Thirty years ago, Dan White, a San Francisco city councilman, killed the mayor of San Francisco.  He argued that he went insane eating too many Twinkies, hot dogs and other junk food.  The defence was successful.

The Highlander

To paraphrase Tolstoy (who wouldn't?), “all great movie lines are alike; each terrible line is bad in its own way.”  There are, in my my movie memory, five lines that outdo all others in the awfulness of delivery and content; each is uniquely bad, such as to belong to its own class; there need to be seminars to study just how the mind of man (or woman) could come up with such horrors, and how the mouth of man (or woman) could utter them.  Entire brigades of psychologists should be unleashed upon the world to study why it is that we, the watchers and movie-goers, sit there passively and do not react when assaulted – nay, battered – with these insults to the English language, the art of acting and the craft of movie-making.  These five worst lines are, in no particular order (points for naming the movie; bonus points for naming the actor; gift certificate for a therapist near you if you name the writer/director):

35. “It's raining?  I didn't notice.”
d)  “Love means never having to say you're sorry.”
MCML: “Hoo-Ha.”
** “I'm Connor McLeod, of the clan McLeod, of Planet Zeist.”
H: “Then it begins.”
(Confused by the numbering?  I told you, “in no particular order”.)
Of these, one in particular stands out: not just because it was atrocious, but because it was gratuitously so; and not just because it destroyed a movie, but because it laid waste to a concept. 

The Highlander was an odd gem of a movie.  Christopher Lambert – a Frenchman playing a Highland Scot with a bizarre accent – belonged, in the movie/concept, to a race of Immortals who were given the promise of Reaching the Great Mystery of the Universe (and thereby Becoming at One with the Great Mother Earth and All Animals in the Kingdom of Nature) if they could behead every other immortal and remain the last one standing.  The concept was hokey, to be blunt, and the storyline had more holes in it than a Scottish Golf Course beset by a battalion of moles.  But here was something endearing, and highly entertaining, in the innocence and earnestness with which the movie tackled the Grand Themes of Life.  Then the sequel came out, almost literally from another planet, and ruined the whole thing.

Almost the whole thing, for there was one thing that the second movie, the one from planet Zeist, could not undo, and it was the scenery of the original.  The Scottish Highlands.  Whether or not the movie was actually filmed there was immaterial; once I saw the movie, the damage was done.  I fell in love with Scotland – an image of Scotland – and the Highlands, and it took me well-nigh two decades to finally make it there in person.  And to fall in love again, this time not with an image but with the real thing.

We landed in Edinburgh Airport in mid-morning (sunny) one early August day.  Got the car and drove for an hour to Rosslyn Chapel, one of the architectural gems of Scotland.  Upon arrival at the Chapel (driving rain and howling wind) you notice how small it is.  This is not a Gothic monster like the Köln Cathedral and there is no pretense that you are going to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the thing.  Like a nouvelle cuisine dish in a snooty French restaurant, Rosslyn Chapel is a little delicacy to be savoured rather than an all-you-can-eat monster to be gulped down.  Practically the entire interior is carved; one column alone took an apprentice master mason three years to complete (while the mason was away looking for a piece of granite or other stone for the same column; when the mason came back, he was not terribly happy that the work had already been done …).  A masterpiece and a must see (the column, certainly; and the Chapel as a whole).  An hour later we walked out (sunny with cloudy periods) and lunched at the village.  After lunch (driving rain) we got into the car and drove to Edinburgh.

Edinburgh, in my view, is one of the loveliest cities in Europe; the Royal Mile is the prettiest street in all of Britain, and probably one of the prettiest Miles in all of Europe.  The buildings are not grand or especially old; but there is a harmony in the place that is at once impressive and comforting.  Our first destination after Rosslyn was Edinburgh Castle. (Sunny again; getting whiplash from the constant change in the weather.)  From below, the Castle, perched as it is on a rock in the middle of the city, looked mighty imposing.  You half expect a labyrinth of dungeons and dank walls when you get there.  Dungeons there certainly were, at some point; and some of the walls were kind of grimy.  But I found the Castle itself (not terribly old, by European Castle Standards – there is an EU Commission Regulation that forbids a castle to be called “old” if it was built after 1453 – the official end of the Middle Ages – but the Brits got an exemption.  Anything built before the Blair Era is now considered “old”, to contrast with Blair's Cool Britannia.) quite charming.  Then again, perhaps it is the romantic in me: “Here is where Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Queen of Scots, dragged her Italian tutor out of the chambers of the Queen and had him stabbed 53 times.” “This is where Lord Darnley was arrested by the Scots Lords and committed to the scaffold for treason.” “This is where Mary Queen of Scots last saw her one year-old son, before he was taken from her, and she was handed by the Scottish nobles to the English to be beheaded.”  And so on.  Such delicious tragedy.
Dinner was something of a challenge.  We had heard much about the Scottish culinary experience – deep fried Mars bars and all – and then there was the fact that we were in Edinburgh in the middle of the Fringe Festival.  Between the tourists, the (then) low Canadian dollar and the deep-fried pizza, we risked not just the wallet but the functioning of our arteries.  So we set out to look for restaurants off the beaten path.  Past “The Cock and the Spigot”, we stumbled upon “The Broken Bone”, a vegetarian nouvelle cuisine place (“Asparagus and Pistachio Quiche”, “Puff Pastry with Grapes and Peanut-Butter”).  I am not especially lacking in culinary courage – anyone who has had Belgian Eel in Green Sauce or Sweet and Sour Duck Tongues is certainly one for food experiments – but my courage failed at mention of “Coriander Tofu”, and we moved on to the next restaurant (“The Diddling Dick” or “The Crack and the Skull”, I forget), where we had an overpriced but reasonably edible dinner.
Oban and environs

After two days in Edinburgh we set out to explore.  The first two days we were planning a literary tour of Scotland.  Our first stop was Loch Lomond.

Yes, indeed, the Loch Lomond.
Our second stop – what's that?  You can't place the literary significance of Loch Lomond?  Exasperated sigh, roll of the eyes … You do realise that you are the only one on this list who does not know the enormous literary significance of Loch Lomond.  Because of a single, solitary reader, I have to break the flow of my email and explain it all.  Well, not all; at least some.  I ask the other readers to excuse you.
Loch Lomond, to make a long story short, is the favourite Scotch of Captain Haddock.
So where were we? Yeah, my lit-
What, you don't know who Captain Paddock, er, Herring, er, Haddock is?  And I suppose next you tell me that you have no idea where Marlinspike Hall is, or who is the world-renowned Professor Cuthbert Calculus? The Milanese Nightingale?  Dupont?  Or, to be precise, Dupond?
(My apologies to the rest, but there is this one reader who is, evidently, out to lunch ….  So here it goes.) 
Some say that the most significant Belgian export is chocolate; others might mention rank corruption; one or two would suggest EU regulations and other red tape.  But of course, all of that pales in comparison to the Graphic Novel, and more specifically, Tintin.  Written by a cryptofascist anti-Semite and evincing, on occasion, a rude racism, the Tintin chronicles nevertheless demonstrated a remarkable eye for social and political commentary.  There was, of course, quite a lot of fluff (“The Black Island”, which takes place in Scotland, was on its face about counterfeit operations, but it was really about a gorilla in a castle), but many of the books dealt with real problems: The Blue Lotus addressed Japan's invasion of China on trumped-up charges (when no one in the West was willing to talk about it); Tintin in the Land of the Soviets exposed Stalinism even as such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre were still singing the praises of the Soviet regime; in Tintin in America there is a clear condemnation of the treatment of Native Americans, and so on.  Besides, Hergé, the author, spun a good yarn.  And that's why Loch Lomond, the captain's whiskey, stayed with me all these year, not to mention the Scottish castle where the gorilla lived (long story). 
So … back to the literary tour of Scotland, and Loch Lomond.  Lovely loch (it was sunny); great vistas; beautiful area.  From there, we went to Inverary Castle (clouding over), the home of the Duke of Argyll.  The Duke is a dashing fellow; his house looks great on the outside.  Inside, it had a musty smell, frayed 17th c. furniture and tapestry, and some stuff belonging to Rob Roy (an outlaw by English standards, he was a Scottish hero).  The castle looks a lot older than it is; and looks a lot better from the outside than inside.  From there, off to a bed and breakfast in the outskirts of Oban, of whiskey fame.  Angus on the hoof were grazing outside the window; sheep stopped and stared as we walked past the pastures (by this point, in driving rain); dinner was excellent; breakfast the next day, as the official Guide to Scotland reassured us, was “highly original, reflecting the character and the culture of the owners.”  In the case of this B&B, the owners were from Birmingham, so we got bangers and mash.
Our fourth day was spent mostly on the road; we were to complete the literary tour with a visit to the castle that had inspired the castle in The Black Island and with an attempt to find the Harry Potter bridge and steamtrain.  The Harry Potter bridge – better known as the Glenfinnian Viaduct  – is hidden in a valley behind the Glenfinnian Monument.  There is really no sign to tell you how to find the place.  Entirely by chance, we stopped at the monument after a drive in Scottish back country (sunny); we stopped at the monument for coffee (rain) and decided to walk up the vantage point (in mud, slipping and sliding up the hill) to get a better look at the loch (driving rain and sleet).  Mission Accomplished, we headed back to the car to continue the journey (the clouds had passed by now and the sun had returned).
The Hebrides and the Highlands

The road ended, literally, in Mallaig, where (under a massive rainpour) we saw the Harry Potter train and caught the ferry over to the Isle of Skye.

I had first read about the Inner Hebrides in two small books setting out the account of Samuel Johnson's journey to the Highlands and the Scottish Isles (there is Johnson's version, and also Boswell's immensely more entertaining retelling).  There is a lot of romance attached to the Hebrides in Scottish lore, especially to Skye, because this is where Bonnie Prince Charles, the pretender to the English and Scottish thrones, was spirited to in maid's clothing by Flora Macdonald after his ignominious defeat at the Battle of Culloden Hill.  This was the last Jacobite attempt to reclaim the British throne from the Hanoverians, installed in London since 1714 by Britain's Protestant elite.  By all accounts, Charles was a brave man, though much like his father and grandfather, thoroughly misled, both about the times and about his own support in the British heartland.  The pages of history are filled with such characters and at each retelling, especially from a distance, the “romance” of their doomed projects becomes that much more appealing.  As we drove on a single track road in the desolate wilds of Skye, the thought that came to my mind was this: what foolishness to leave Rome, to come to this barren island, to hide in flea-infested beds for months, to run from Royal agents and “traitorous” subjects in a maid's outfit … and for what?
Johnson was an admirer of the Stuarts, more out of conservative attachment to tradition than any liking for the mad line of Mary Queen of Scots (she's always in the background; her grandson, like her, lost his head to ambition; her great-grandson was deposed, and his son, the Bonnie Prince, demonstrated the same bad judgement as Mary.  Ran in the family, I guess.).  The problem of history, and of modern times, is that there are always Bonnie Prince Charleses around, rising for one lost cause or another; in their mad pursuit of madder ambition, these characters emit a sort of romantic radiance; some, like Johnson, regard, admire and dismiss; others, however, follow, and therein lies the danger.
From Skye we pressed on to the Highlands, where we were to spend two wonderful days.  The first day we went to Applecross along the coastal “scenic” route.  Or the coastal “suicide” route.  Single-track road; mountainous terrain; no guardrails along the road; sheep dozing on the warm asphalt; Dutch and German extra-wide caravans barrelling down at Autobahn speeds towards you; hills and peaks and gullies and streams rising and falling from every direction; rain and sleet and fog and blinding sun in random succession …  In Applecross we walked through a “Spruce Forest”, which was more of a clear-cut because of a storm-and-regeneration plan (storms cleared the place of trees that had not been native to the country; the local authorities allow local flora to return but keep foreign trees out); all along the pathway there were chives and wild mint and thistle and wasps – I might as well have stayed in my garden, except of course that I would have missed the clear-cut and the sheep droppings.  We had lunch at a charming little restaurant called The Potting Shed; you eat pretty much whatever it is that they grow in the garden (even the bread is made of rye grown on the grounds), so it gives you a healthy, virtuous feeling, which you need after you part with £9 for lettuce and goat cheese salad.  On the way back, we drove through a massive bowl on a single-track switch-back … the views were stunning – not that I was paying attention, as keeping my eyes (and the car's wheels) on the road required all my attention and nerves.

On the second day in the Highlands we went north, to Loch Maree, a favourite of Queen Victoria's (for what it's worth) and one of the most spectacular vistas we saw in a land of spectacular vistas.  As I write this, I am conscious of the fact that the superlatives tend to tumble one on top of the other and thus lose their force.  At the same time, I wish to underline the context from which I had gone to explore the Highlands, and I want you to see the superlatives in that light.  Switzerland, after all, and Geneva in particular, is all about lakes, mountains, spectacular views and relatively unspoiled nature.  Evidently, the Swiss country is not as wild or barren as the Highlands, but leaving that aside, in principle, the sight of lakes and mountains and winding roads and valleys was not one with which I was unfamiliar.  And yet.  And yet, Loch Maree was captivating.

We were in Scotland, in the Highlands, and it stands to reason that we should visit Loch Ness.  From Shieldagh, we drove on to Inverness, which is at the Northern tip of the famous loch.  Inverness is aggressively ugly – you have to question the sanity of a city council that would allow three massive concrete blocks to block the view of the charming Inverness Castle from the firth (river outlet into the sea).  And you have to really wonder about the Scottish Tourist Board's mental stability when you see their promotional posters plastered all over the concrete buildings: there is an “artist's rendition” of a thistle, with the motto: “Live it.  Travel Scotland.”  Live “it”?  What's “it” exactly?  A thistle?  Live the life of a prickly purple pest?  Travel Scotland like a weed?  The dangers of dangling pronouns, of meaningless mottoes, of bad planning.

Stirling Castle

After lunch we headed to Loch Ness; it was foggy and after a cursory attempt at seeing the monster, we gave up and went to a Scotch distillery instead.  At Dalwhinnie.  Twinned with Las Vegas.  The village, not the distillery, though for all practical purposes they were the same … Any way, obligatory tour of a distillery over (and not a Scotch fan and don't even want to “acquire” the taste), we pressed on to Stirlingshire, where we were to spend the next two days.


The drive through the interior took nearly the whole day.  It was raining, and when the rain stopped, the fog would descend.  Gray skies, gray road, no visibility, endless talk radio in Gaelic – even Simon the GPS had fallen silent because of the monotonous road – and the mind of the driver begins to wander.  In my specific case, under the circumstances, you begin to notice road signs – and in Britain, these are remarkable indeed.  This is a Nanny State run amok; a nation in permanent state of toilet training.  Every fifty meters or so there is a sign instructing you to do something, to refrain from doing something, or to pay attention to one thing or another.  And we are not talking about “keep right” or “look left”, but signs that tell you, for example, “Don't cause frustration; give way to faster cars” – I'm not kidding about this one. 

And then there are the cameras.  Every nook and cranny of the country has a closed-circuit camera watching over you – or, at any rate, watching you.  For me at least, the constant surveillance was a permanent invitation to petty mischief: you are almost driven to pick your nose in front of the camera, or scratch your balls – zippers open – every time you walk into an elevator.  And you think of ways of being more aggressive without inviting the police to do a cavity search.  What if the cc cameras had sound recording capability?  Why, that would almost demand letting rip a loud fart or a belch; let them install smell-detectors, and I'd be eating beans by the cartload to oblige.

While I'm in full rant mode, let me remark on that other famous British custom: the fact that they do not charge for their museums.  It is true, of course, but utterly irrelevant when you are a tourist.  For, to enter any other tourist tra- I mean, attraction, you are required to pay an arm and a leg, and a liver, and a few feet of your small intestines, for the privilege.  If there is a ruin in the country, there is a stand to drain blood from tourists.

Doune Castle is one example.  Famous principally for housing the first Duke of Albany (who?) and being one of the sites for Monty Python and the Holy Grail (now you're talking), the castle consists of three rooms, a turret and a scrubbed kitchen; you can't even walk on top of the walls.  And for the pleasure of seeing where John Cleese and Eric Idle traipsed around in drag, you pay £4 a head.  Stirling Castle was more imposing – at £12 it better have been, though the staff was decidedly grumpier than any other place we had been to in Scotland.  As for the Castle itself – well, there is a lot of history to the place, which was undergoing extensive renovations.  Apparently, in the course of ripping open the innards of the Castle, the workers had come across some interesting oddities.  Evidently helped by a team of spinners and communication experts, the Museum Board was trying to get as much mileage out of the construction and these oddities as possible.  My favourite: “Mysteries of the Palace”.  One whole series of posters was on how one of the beams in the roof is at a 45 degree angle and it is not clear how the roof was attached to it. (Collectively after me: “Ooooh, aaaaah.”) Another series of posters explored the deep mysteries of a door that may have led to a staircase in the garden. (“Just use your imagination”, the guide helpfully added.) I tried,oh I tried, but with the floors covered in plywood and the ceiling ripped open, with inane signs telling me about the mysteries hidden in the angle of the support beams, and with the guide exhorting me to exercise my imagination about a door that may or not have led to a garden, it was hard going.  I just was not sure exactly why I had paid twelve quid to visit a construction site to “use my imagination”.  If you are planning on visiting Stirling, make sure the flooring is done.  Or wait for the movie.

After that, we had one more day and night in Edinburgh.  And then back to Geneva for two more days, before the definitive end of my posting.

For the time being, you should not expect any more travelogues.  I have one trip planned to New York – a weekend thingy – and a ski trip back to Switzerland.  Not terribly exciting.  Next summer … who knows?  In the meantime, keep warm, and keep looking at the stars.

Roma Eterna

It is said that when John Glenn, the first American in space, flew past Italy, he checked his wallet to make sure it was still there. (Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, would probably have done the same, had he been sober; Valentina Treshkova, the first woman in space, might well have done so in between her bouts of hysterics and throwing up.) It is a cheap joke, of course – John Glenn would not have been carrying a wallet – for, after all, I have been to Italy eight times (including three times to Rome and once to Sicily) and have never had a wallet, or anything else, stolen.
Still.  Like most cheap jokes, there is an element of truth in it – I mean, in addition to Gagarin being drunk and Treshkova in tears.  We found that out the hard way, when I was in Rome with my parents, sister and brother-in-law.
On the morning of our third day in Rome, my mom put quite a lot of cash in the purse to go shopping.  Unfortunately for her, and fortunately for some Roman purse-snatcher,* my mom did not find anything to her liking.  We went for a walk, and something not so funny happened on the way to the Forum: in the literally two minutes that my Mom was looking at the inside of the Curia in the Foro Romano, someone helped him or herself to my mother's purse and glasses.  Back to the apartment; cancelled the credit cards; filed a police report … and, to my parents' enormous credit, we were back in the city being tourists within a couple of hours.  Naturally they were both very upset, but they put their happy faces on and enjoyed the rest of the trip. 

* “Roman” in the sense of someone in Rome.  Roman friends of ours insisted that it was not the Italians but some undefined foreigners who are responsible for the crime.  But then they would, wouldn't they.


What is there left to say about Rome that has not been said a million times over the past two millennia? 
And can one improve on Byron or Fellini?  
Elsewhere I have lamented the “anecdotisation” of experience, and pointedly refused to describe those moments in my life that had to be lived through to be really understood.  There have not been many, to be sure, but each time I sit down to write something about a place or an emotion or a person, I have to wonder if I am turning a moment of personal experience into an amusing anecdote for its own sake, and whether in doing so, I am somehow losing the spirit of the moment.  But then, if one starts with the premise that pretty much all that needed to be said about Rome has already been said, and better, by others, what is left but the personal and the anecdote?
What is worse, I don't have any amusing anecdotes to impart.  Aside from the stolen purse, the rest of the trip was fairly calm and uneventful.  We managed to hit some of the major sites without too many problems; we avoided the highway banditry of Italian touristaurants by carefully following tourist guidebooks (there's irony for you), and thus ate well and relatively cheaply; and though I had excellent tiramisú, I still have not found what I could describe definitively as the best I have had. 
I am left with three observations.
Galleria dell'Accademia is where, in Florence, the David is kept, as well as several incomplete works by Michelangelo.  I had seen the replica of David in the main Piazza of Florence before; even so, I was unprepared for the real thing.  Vasari, the great art critic, has said that to see David is to face perfection; one might as well give up on all the rest.  I should not go that far, for Michelangelo's other works, Pieta and Moses, are nothing to shake a stick at.  And yet, there is something haunting, deeply striking, about David.  As to its technical perfection there can be no doubt – but there have been many technically proficient artists whose work have not lasted even past their own lifetimes; indeed, as Clive James has observed, technical proficiency is probably the one thing that genius and mediocrity have in common.  
Michelangelo once said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  There are four unfinished examples of his work in the Accademia and, looking at those and David at the same time, you suddenly realise what he meant.
Much has been written about the sense of proportion in David's construction.  Indeed, right beside David, there is a version of Pieta that, in its absence of proportion, immediately underlines the magnificence of David … and also that this other Pieta could not possibly have been the work of Michelangelo.  What is striking about the proportionality of David is not so much that the hands and the feet and so on are proportionate to one another – that would be easy to get – but that, knowing that his 5 meter statue would be put on a pedestal, Michelangelo structured his David to seem proportionate from below: If looked at straight ahead, the head is disproportionately large; from below, it all looks harmonious.  
And the head … we have all seen pictures of the furrowed brows, the intense look, the turned head … the sling slung over his shoulder and the rocks in his languid hands … now, this is the essence of genius.  He captures a moment; a moment in movement; a moment of emotion.  Standing in front of the statue, walking around it, your eyes are transfixed by  that look in the eyes of the marble statue.  My mom asked a question that, at the time, seemed strange to me, but upon reflection, hits the bull's eye in respect of Michelangelo's strength and artistry.  She asked, “so who was he?”  I asked her, “you mean, David?”  She replied, “No, I mean him.”  The determined youth with the furrowed brows; him.  That five meter block of carved and chiseled marble was almost real, almost alive; it holds within it, and on its skin, the expression of a real young man who modelled for Michelangelo.  Who was he?  Who knows?  And yet, like Mona Lisa's smile, those brows and those eyes convey across the centuries an emotion as raw and as immediate as if the young man were right in front of you, glaring, determined, impetuous.
The Vatican houses two of Michelangelo's other masterpieces, the Sistine Chapel and the Pieta.  The Sistine experience is one of those moments that defy description; in fact, I think all art commentary and all movies about the famous ceiling should be banned. (There is, in the awful movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, a particularly odious scene where Michelangelo, played by Charlton Heston – the marbles in the quarry he was working in had more character than he did – sees the “creation” scene in the moveme nt of the clouds.  I choked and had to stop the movie for a few minutes to regain my breath.  Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II was excellent, though.  I mean, a pope in full military armour – how could you go wrong?) 
The Pieta sits behind bullet-proof glass in St. Peter's Basilica.  I am not a big fan of St. Peter's.  I find the “mine is bigger than yours” lines in the middle aisle (“Notre Dame of Paris comes to here, while St. John's of New York only manages to be half as long as St. Peter's”) unseemly and faintly grotesque.  The fine bronze Baldacchino might well have impressed me if I did not know that the bronze to make it was stripped off the roof of the Pantheon, in my view the finest building in Rome and among the finest I have ever see.  And then there is marble to the right of us, marble to the left of us, marble in front of us; into that valley of death rode – ahem, sorry, got carried away.  That's the problem: the architect got carried away.  Almost everything in St. Peter's is too much; not as much of a too much as the Gésu or the St. Ignatius Loyola churches – that would be even too much of a too much – but still, too much.  Almost, for there is the  Pieta, which is just perfect. 
And I mean perfect not just in a technical or an artistic sense.  Here is where I am not certain Vasari had it right.  Because while David packs a big wallop of artistic and emotional impact, the Pieta has all of that, and more.  For one thing, it is on a human scale; for another, both in composition and in construction, the Pieta is far more fluid than the David.  If one observes a moment – strong, though it may be, but still a moment – in David, in the Pieta there is a whole drama that is unfolding in the folds of Mary's robes and the falling arms and legs of the dead Jesus.  The Pieta is behind bullet-proof glass because it has been attacked several times.  Attacked.  A statue.  Unthinkable, in the abstract.  But then, stand before it for any length of time, and the thing overwhelms you.  More than all of the blood and torture in Mel Gibson's Passion; more than all twisted crucifixes; more than all the Sunday morning sermons of the agonies of Christ: this piece of inert marble moves you; makes you tremble with pity, and then with rage; and across four hundred years, shakes you to your foundations.  Even for a rationalist like me, the Pieta is powerful propaganda; good then, that it is hidden away, behind bullet-proof glass, in a corner of a an all-too phallocentric church in Rome.
The Moses is not, at least in my view, one of Michaelangelo's best works.  It is impressive, to be sure.  But, I confess, seeing it left me unmoved.  Certainly my lack of reaction was not because of its history.  The Moses was meant to be part of a far larger group of statues made for the tomb of Julius II, the warrior pope (who had also commissioned the Sistine Chapel).  But when Michelangelo and Julius were not fighting over money, they had artistic difficulties, and this battle between the stubborn artist and the pope-in-armor went on for a decade – until the good pope died.  And then there was no money; and Michelangelo was in one of his funks; and there were other priorities … well, in the end, even though Michelangelo lived on to be 80, he did not finish a lot of the statues in the group (and three of these ended up in the Accademia, one in the Louvre).  The only one that was finished was the  Moses, which ended up adorning the tomb of Julius, now dead for thirty years. (The smell must have awful ….)
The interesting thing about the statue is that Moses appears to have two horns.  I actually do not know Michelangelo's reasons for the horns, but there are two intriguing precedents, neither of which, I am certain, Michelangelo knew of, which makes the whole thing even more interesting.  The first is this: coins struck under the rule of Alexander also show him with horns – in one set they are highly stylised, but in another, they are clearly ram's horns.  What does this mean?  Not clear.  Even more fascinating is the only extant image of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire.  It is indistinct, battered by sandstorms and rain and wind and the hammer of the invader over 2,500 years.  And yet, unmistakable: his crown is resting on two horns on his head.  What could this possibly mean?
And the most spooky thing of all: Machiavelli, whose tomb is practically next to that of Michelangelo's in the Florentine church of Santa Croce, noted that the two greatest law givers in human history were Moses and … Cyrus of Persia.  Did the horns symbolise anything?  How could Michelangelo have known of Cyrus's horns?  Did he know of Alexander's?  Are we in Dan Brown territory?
Or is there some other, totally benign, explanation?
After Rome, I went back to the English castle at which I taught international trade law last year.  The programme was slightly different this year; but the students, much like last year, were bright, articulate, curious and motivated.  It is a strange thing, to be teaching first-year law students nearly twenty years after I myself first went to law school.  It is a humbling experience to come across students already so accomplished; it is exhilarating to be challenged by their idealism; and their optimism is not only refreshing but positively infectious.  It is a hokey thing to say, perhaps, but at the end of every class and every course, I become slightly more optimistic about the future of my profession, but also of the world we live in.  If a refurbished Tudor Castle in the bucolic East Sussex country were a microcosm of our troubled world, we should have nothing to worry about.  I will banish any contrary thoughts from my mind, at least for the next few months.