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.

Of choice and men

Disclaimer: any resemblance between events described below and real life is hardly coincidental. In this, the Age of Trump, I take no responsibility for anything I say. Where I say anything out of bounds, I am either joking/being sarcastic or “telling it like it is”.  I reserve the right to pout and throw tantrums and generally declaim against the unfairness of the universe. 

Life. It’s about choices. This city or that; this job or that; this sofa or that; this lover or that.  Sometimes the choice is no choice, as it is driven by forces deep within us: Snails or oysters, or both, or neither – a life of luxury or escape and oblivion instead?  Sometimes a choice is no choice, as it is driven by forces all around us: a work environment marked by thwarted ambition, malignant lies and out of control tempers – to stay is to be crushed, so you “choose” to leave work and profession and city and country, to resettle 6080 km away to regain your sanity. And then there are choices that are false choices: you ask for a “bitter lemon” and what you get is a choice between tonic (no lemon) and “Schweppes Lemon” (no bitter) and a haughty “But you are in France” delivered with a shrug.

As we are not perfect, no exercise of choice guarantees a perfect outcome. A choice between imperfections requires compromise. Compromise in things we value; compromise in values. This is the human condition.  The more challenging the conditions, the more compromise comes into relief; the starker the choice, the greater the compromise.  Seven months after I left my house of eight years, my city of thirteen and my profession of two decades, and seven months since I landed in a new-old city to work in a new-old job and build a new-old life, the choices and compromises still stand in stark contrast, forcing decisions daily.

Life. It’s about choices. Choices require compromise. Compromises in deciding between imperfect options.

And so it was that on a bright sunny Sunday afternoon in the heat and the heart of July, mid-way between the national day of my old country and that of my new home, circumstances forced a decision, at a crossroads, between two options, each beguiling and beckoning in its own way, and yet each glaring with imperfections and implications both profound and facile. I was heading home on foot after four hours of hard work keeping myself reclined and my mind empty underneath a scorching sun, with an occasional respite only in the hard toil of a paddle-board on wavy water and some pinkish wine for moistening my parched throat.  The path before me as I walked home, miles of uphill trudging; this being a Sunday afternoon, only a handful of options for diversion.  And then there it was, the choice, the moment of reckoning, the compromise between imperfections; the colossal clash of values and, one could even say, value structures.  I stood there, at the crossroads (Rue du 31 Décembre and Rue de Monchoisy), pondering.  Even at this late hour, the sun was still bearing down hard; my backpack weighing heavy; the noise of traffic all around; sweat running down my brow, like L’Étranger I felt disoriented; indecisive; a moment of existential angst. What to do now?  Where to go from here? How to choose?

An éclair or a palmier?

No metaphor this; a real decision to be made; a deceptively simple choice, simple in appearance but profound in its implications: Not simply a choice between two pastries, but of two different, well, lifestyles: they were, after all, available only in different cafés.

I stood there, pondering.

A properly-made chocolate éclair is not just a thing of beauty. From the first bite, it transports you outside of yourself, your troubles, life itself.  The outer chocolate layer gives a false impression of solidity as you sink your teeth into it, but then gives way to a gentle chou pastry enrobing the heavenly softness of a chocolate custard filling.  As you savor the first bite, you reflect on the next: how big a bite to take determines not just how much chocolate filling you line the inside of your mouth with, but how quickly you finish the éclair; intensity of sensation on the one hand, extending the joy on the other. There is the temptation to have a bit of coffee between bites: of course, you don’t want to drown the taste of the chocolate custard; but then, it’s incredibly satisfying to start each bite as if anew.  With the last bite, the world takes on a whole different hue.  Life is tranquil; you close your eyes; take in the sun; meditate.

A well-made palmier is the resident of a different universe, the denizen of a different time, the harbinger of a different season, the citizen of a different dimension. Where the éclair is squishy except for the chocolate covering, a palmier is solid.  Semi-round (it is a stylized heart, thus coeur de France) and flat, it is made of thin strips of buttery sweet – but not too sweet – mille-feuilles wound tightly together and glazed with caramelized sugar.  It gives the impression of being crunchy – and if you have ever had the store-bought cookie versions of it (shudder), you’d be forgiven for this heretical thought – but though firm, it lets your teeth to gently sink into it, almost but not quite like a lover’s shoulder.  Where an éclair melts and dissolves and dissipates, the palmier is to be chewed; it lingers; it invigorates.  You don’t decide how a bite; you don’t wait for coffee-sips in between; you don’t close your eyes.  A palmier demands your attention to the sweet buttery end.  After which, a simple espresso – never more than that – is enough to get you up and going.  A palmier scoffs at meditation and mocks yoga; it is Trump to éclair’s classy Clinton.

Éclair or palmier?

Wish it were that easy, the choice, the compromise, the existential decision facing me at that corner. There were the venues to consider; the set-up of the patios; the wait staff; the comfort of the chairs; the clientele.  To go or to sit down?  At this late hour, do I still order coffee?  Or a juice?  What kind of juice?  The one offered freshly pressed- and squeezed juice, the other overpriced processed ones in bottles. Do I sit in the sun, or find a shaded place?  Inside or outside?

The patisserie en route at the corner has excellent palmiers (which they insist on calling coeur de France), but they over-milk the cappuccino (hence the espresso), and the only place they have outside is in the blistering sun, on the sidewalk, across the street from a motorcycle parking area with all the noise, pollution, tattoos and smoking that that implies. Well, a palmier is an action pastry; an inner-city corner café is how it should be experienced.

The alternative is far from alternative; it is a sedate lovely café by the name of Patisserie Mage, around the corner from where I live, a sedate lovely neighbourhood by the name of Champel; the café has a shaded patio overlooking a grand old building; it specializes in chocolates, cakes and, well, éclairs. As befits its location and its offerings, on Sundays it is populated by the local retirees who whisper when they talk, better to not hear each other through their hearing aids.  The cappuccino is perfection itself, complementing the éclairs and the patio, delivered twenty minutes after your order – a risky proposition given the clientele, as none seems quite up to hanging on to dear life for much longer.  The rest of the service is not much speedier – I have a dart gun handy to bring down a server when I spot her through the tall grass.  This is the place you go to, to meditate and contemplate.

The trouble with choice, even with the most binary of choices – and it does not get more binary than éclair or palmier with me – is that however contained, the decision tree demands to branch out. Once you stand at a corner contemplating contemplation, you have no option but to start questioning your basic assumptions; down that path is heresy or apostasy, and having been one or the other all my life, I can assure you that nothing good can come of it.  Éclair or palmier – obvious question to ask; which café, a necessary predicate.  But … why not a gelato? Two scoops – passion-fruit and pistachio – in a rose garden?

The head spins. The sun starts burning through SPF30.  Steady on, old man, I tell myself. There are compromises to consider; options to analyze; choices to be made; decisions to be taken. It’s already five p.m. on a Sunday; neither patisserie stays open past 6 – this is Geneva.  And so I choose

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.

The Talking Horse

I knew going in that the renovations were going to cost more and take longer than expected.  But even when you expect them – and plan for them – cost overruns and delays (some self-inflicted, others Acts of God) are a nuisance.  Case in point: third week without a dishwasher and second week without a working kitchen.  Three more to go.  But the TV console is reinstalled and the couch – covered with dust as it is – is back in the living room.  Thank the Heavens for tender mercies.

The first floor of my condo was not the only thing getting a facelift as the year ground to a close.  After almost six years at Canada’s Departments of Finance and Justice, and in my twentieth year of call as a lawyer, I have left both ministries and my profession for a new opportunity at the Competition Bureau of Canada.  I have been there almost two months, but it already feels like an excellent fit.  The position is brand new, which means that I have considerable latitude in shaping it; it covers five disparate areas of accountability, which fact makes the job both intellectually and personally challenging.  On top of all of this, next month I start a new teaching gig, in French, at the University of Ottawa.  Coffee has always been a good friend; until April 14, it will be my best friend.

No major travels this year.  In January I skipped my “annual” Alpine vacation as a controlled experiment to see if my annual cold was related to the stresses of the travel, or the British tourists at Verbier, or a combination of both.  I still got the cold; might as well have been in the Alps (the snow was phenomenal).  In a fit of extreme optimism, in May I started planning a long-ish trip to Tokyo and Beijing in December; ticket bought, I all but forgot about that pesky little thing called a “visa” until much later, at which point I was cutting it too close.  Between the uncertain visa situation and the fact that my friends were no longer likely to be around (see above, “fit of optimism” and planning seven months ahead), prudence dictated a course correction.  Fortuitous, in the end, given said delay and said cost-overruns in said renovations.

No major travels this year, but I did get back to Europe – a week with the University and ten days on my own.  In Geneva I visited old friends; in Paris, I visited old haunts; in Berlin, visiting old friends and old haunts, I gathered enough courage to pay homage to some of the victims of Nazism at Plötzensee.


The first thing you see as you enter the execution chamber are the meat hooks at the end.  There, hundreds were hanged, eight at a time, using piano wire for a slow and painful death.  And then you see the tiles on the far left wall and the grates in the middle of the chamber; that was for the blood, when the guillotine was being used.  All in all, 2600 or so were executed in one way or another in this small room attached to a still-functioning prison.  The interpretation centre gives you the numbers, but it also gives you some of the stories; it is informative and poignant without being maudlin or shrill; and it is not the meat hooks or the guillotine-grates that you remember, but the sad human stories of heroic and not-so-heroic lives cut short.

Given the total human cost of Nazism, this seems a drop in the bucket, and the victims here were no more deserving of their fate than the other millions of victims; given the barbarity we have witnessed this side of the twentieth century, the horrors of this particular chamber do not appear exceptional or exceptionally sinister.  And yet.  There is something exceptionally disturbing, diabolical even, about Plötzensee and its meat hooks.  On the way back, as we wound our way around the glorious Charlottenburg Palace, parked our bicycles, walked in the gardens and the Orangerie and sampled the food at a festival of sorts, I realized what it was that I found so exceptionally evil.

In his first address as Prime Minister, Churchill had this to say about what he termed – and was to become known as – the Battle of Britain:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

If Auschwitz and Dr. Mengele stand for perverted science, Plötzensee represents the epitome of perverted law, serving, as it did, as the slaughterhouse for the Nazi “People’s Court”.  It is not so much the fact of the kangaroo courts – they existed before in other countries and have been deployed to malignant effect since – but that the Nazis turned a country and a culture of laws into a madhouse of “laws”.  Civilization hangs over a dark abyss by a thin thread.


But, the thread holds; don’t be distracted by the pessimists, the fear-mongers, the cynics and the doomsayers.  This Holiday Season has been particularly sobering in that respect: the environmentalists who see the approaching cataclysm and the anti-terrorists who see the oncoming apocalypse, and all manners of conspiracies and End-is-Nigh prophecies in between.  I’m cautiously hopeful.

In his book, The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch has an entire chapter on “Optimism.”  The premise is simple:  “Trying to know the unknowable leads inexorably to error and self-deception.  Among other things, it creates a bias towards pessimism.”  Not just unknowable – the future – but, in the strictest sense of the word, “inconceivable.”  He identifies blind optimism as “proceeding as if one knows that the bad outcomes will not happen.” Similarly, blind pessimism “seeks to ward off disaster by avoiding everything not known to be safe.”  He could have been describing almost all of this season’s conversations when he observed that “a recurring theme in pessimistic theories throughout history has been that an exceptionally dangerous moment is imminent.”  And this is his answer: problems are inevitable; problems are soluble: “The ideal towards which this is working is not that nothing unexpected will go wrong, but that when it does it will be an opportunity for further progress.”  He says of ageing (and this could be universalised to almost all other aspects of our lives, be it climate change or ISIS): “Although it is a complex problem by present-day standards, the complexity is finite and confined to a relatively narrow arena whose basic principles are already fairly well understood.”  He then recites a traditional optimistic story:

Our hero is a prisoner who has been sentenced to death by a tyrannical king, but gains a reprieve by promising to teach the king’s favourite horse to talk within a year.  That night, a fellow prisoner asks what possessed him to make such a bargain.  He replies, “A lot can happen in a year.  The horse might die.  The king might die.  I might die.  Or the horse might talk.”

And it is so that another year comes to an end.  The horse ain’t talking yet, but I still have a day to go ….

Budapest: walking down memory lane …

July 1989 

We took the Orient Express from Vienna to Budapest – at least, what was left of the Orient Express.  Its dictator of over forty years, Janos Kadar, had died the week before; Hungary had opened its borders to the West.  That event was to presage the fall of the Berlin Wall, but at the time, we did not know it.  Adidas and McDonald’s had opened their first branches in an Eastern Bloc country; this was revolution enough.  It was cheap; we were students; the city, with its ancient architecture mothballed in Soviet concrete and neglect, appeared to us authentic.

We rented a room through Ibusz, the state travel agency.  Our landlady was a retired physician who rented the spare bedroom to supplement her income.  By Hungarian standards she lived comfortably: a modern bathroom, two washrooms, elevators that worked.  Even an air conditioner.  The building itself appeared well-maintained.  There was ample hot water.

She spoke only Hungarian and Italian; between my buddy and me, we could come up with English, German, Persian and a smattering of French.  The language barrier meant nothing to our sweet landlady: talked without end and expressively in a wild mixture of Italian and Hungarian, peppered with German and English phrases here and there that she appeared to have picked up from previous visitors.

Our room had one bed, a couch that she prepared for us as another bed, a dresser and a small but functioning refrigerator.  There were three lamps in the room, only one of which had a lightbulb in it.  She told us – motioned to us – to turn it off at night.  We were on the sixth floor and our bedroom window opened onto the street.  As we got there in the evening, and the street appeared deserted, we thought we were in a quiet residential neighbourhood.  The morning traffic jolted us out of bed around 7: the inevitable screech of the streetcar, drivers that took a sadistic joy in blowing their horns, and a stream of light shining through the flimsy curtains gave our street, and the city, a different look than the previous night.  And smell: within minutes of setting out, the smell of burning oil and raw gasoline gave me a nauseating feeling and a throbbing headache, both of which went away after I poured three cups of otherwise undrinkable coffee down my throat.

We were impressed by the Parliament buildings, the National Gallery and, especially, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which appeared to be more authentic than its sister in Vienna.  If you ignored the smog and the noise, the city was actually quite beautiful, almost majestic.  For one thing, the Danube in Budapest is impressive.  Unlike in Vienna, the grand river goes through the very centre of the double city.  Thus, the cafés and bistros that lined the river could do good business by milking the tourists for the beautiful view and the rancid stench that, back then, arose from the depths of the river.  I had seen a Romanian or Hungarian move in which the hero swam the width of the Danube every morning; not this Danube, at least not the 1989 stretch of it in Budapest … without potentially dissolving himself into a pile of goo.

We were, of course, madly photographing every scene and every square.  But there are experiences so intense, that one takes away more than just a memory of a place seen, a phrase heard, or a food eaten.  Somehow, in those instances, the very essence of an experience stays with you: not just the cut and colour, but the texture of that moment.  Budapest afforded us one such experience.

Three in the morning.

We were walking back to our room.  The streets were completely deserted; we could not even get a cab.  It was cool outside and a soft breeze, coming from nowhere in particular, was pushing away the smog and giving us a little air to breathe.  We were hungry, even though we had had a very hearty meal earlier that evening, along with several bottles of cheap Yugoslav wine.  It had been a long night and, surprisingly, some of the downtown bars and cafés had obliged us well into the small hours of the morning.  About a block from our apartment we saw a restaurant; it was still open, so we went in.

A mouldy smell mixed with the smell of cooked beef and paprika made an inviting combination.  We found a table that had four intact legs and two chairs that we could reasonably be certain would not collapse under us.  It was too dark to see whether the table was clean and too late for us to care.  The owner, chef, waiter and bartender came forward and gave us a menu, but then, sensing that we were tourists, simply asked, “Bier? Gulas?”  We answered yes.  Or maybe we did not.  I do not recall him waiting for our answer.  He brought us two steins of beer and, twenty minutes later, two generous portions of gulas.  And we plunged in.

If I have had better gulas, I do not remember it.  I can still taste the tender pieces of beef, the sweet smelling sauce and the beautifully prepared fingerling potatoes, garnished with parsley, that tasted absolutely divine.  We ate our meal in absolute silence, each of us totally absorbed in his food, trying to savour every last bit of taste.  To capture every last ounce of that magical moment.  To truly feel, and absord, the texture of that experience.

An Alaskan journey: The Grand Finale

“Wow, I’ve never seen you like this.” Like most Americans in touch with a subject for 72 hours, Alaska State Trooper Mike Levi considered himself an expert on Detective Inspector Zed Protheroe. “What happened to you?” He asked earnestly, as Protheroe was checking out.
“Oh, nothing. Just need some food.”
“There’s a Humpy’s at the Airport.”
“A what?”
“Humpy’s. One of the best seafood places in Anchorage,” the hotel clerk helpfully offered.
“Ah,” said Protheroe. “I just want a chowder.”
“That they got,” confirmed the clerk, with an emphatic nod.
“Best in Alaska,” said Levi.
Protheroe was silent on the drive to the airport, nodding or shaking his head in response to Trooper Mike’s questions, even though Mike was driving and in the dark could not see the tired head movements. Soon they had parked, checked in and sat down at Humpy’s. Protheroe had a distant, almost wistful, look; as if he were reflecting on the adventures of the last four days. As they waited for the waiter to wait them, Trooper Mike caught the look and, from what Protheroe could detect, changed gear.
“That was some amazing thinking, man. Who could have thought – wool socks on a floating corpse holding the secrets to a murder!”
Wool socks on a floating corpse; 34 stab wounds on a headless torso. Fact was, Protheroe’s look was that of a hungry and tired man rather than a thoughtful one; he just wanted his chowder and beer, and then his seat on the aircraft, to go to sleep. Trooper Mike took Protheroe’s continued silence as license to proceed.
“… and Karla, the Romanian prostitute, was actually Guillaume, a Frenchman? … Never forget your first question: ‘how did the corpse get naked?’ … By the way, what was with the Aussie getting married in Jasper? …”
The waiter finally came. No, they did not have Alaskan Ale, Lager or Amber, or any of the other featured beers on the menu. They ordered Bud. And no clam chowder. There was smoked salmon chowder. Wait, no more left. No chowder of any kind. Fish and chips. Good choice. Waiter disappears. Beers arrive. No fish and chips. Mike drones on. Protheroe fades in an out. Thirty minutes later, Trooper Mike says, “Wait, they’re calling your flight.”
Still no fish and chips. The waiter is awol. Protheroe motions to the manager, asking about his order. The manager spits out, through gritted teeth, “It’s coming, sir.”
No bread on the table. Beer gone. Waiter shows up, finally, to announce that the fish is being caught, the potatoes are being flown from Idaho, the corn is being pressed for oil, “your order will be ready soon.” …
“Cancel the order,” Protheroe says to the manager, as he gets up to head to the gate. Last call. Fourteen hours from now, he will be back in Ottawa, in his own bed.

Skagway and the Glaciers

Skagway. Population 500; 2000 in the summer. Today, four cruise ships containing 10,000 passengers and 4000 crew are docked here. To put things in perspective, it is as if fourteen million tourists made day visits to Toronto each day over the course of the summer. The streets (all seven of them) of Skagway are clogged with the flotsam and jetsam of the visiting ships. You can buy a cappuccino here, but no internet. The Red Onion Saloon, formerly a brothel at $5 a pop, is doing brisk business, at $5 a pop. Only, the women dressed as Ladies of the Gold Rush remain dressed as they do business.


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Later in the day I end up having a spruce-tip beer, made with spruce tips. The highlight of the day, however, is the heli-hike adventure: take a helicopter to a hanging glacier at 5000 feet, go over it, head to the next peak, at around 6000 feet; go around it, and then over it; hover in the valley; and land on literally four square-feet of concrete beside the White Pass and Yukon Route railway line. Then go for a five mile hike; return and take the train down. Avoid getting lost while photographing nature; avoid breaking a bainberry plant on your skin; avoid stepping into bear poo; and avoid falling off the railings of said railway train: even at 18 miles an hour, you can do serious damage.





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I return to base camp – aka Sapphire Princess – in one piece.

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And head directly to the Piazza for a tiramisu.  No more.  Instead they have peanut butter cups. I ask the patissière if she had bainberry jam to go with the tasty peanut butter. Roberta, from the Philippines, has no clue what I am talking about. (Bainberry causes lockjaw; just as well, if it stops you eating peanut butter, which is, as everyone knows, the food of the devil.)

That night the ship heads out to Glacier Bay, where we rendez-vous with Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers. In the darkness of the sub-Arctic night, there is a ship sailing ahead of us, one alongside and a third behind. Light pollution is atrocious on the deck; I see more stars in Ottawa. For the next two days, we will be “cruising” the inlets and hanging out in front of one glacier after another, the ship turning from side to side to let everyone (in the balcony of their luxury suites) see the ice formations. We are on deck.

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If glaciers were people, I wonder what they would be thinking of all of this.

“Hey Marge, they’re back.”
“Yeah, and I’ve not taken a shower this morning; I look filthy. Ugh.”
“So I heard from Harvard, over at College Fjord – our bums touch when it gets really cold and moist – that these things are called c-r-u-i-s-e s-h-i-p-s. He still don’t know about dem ants running all over.”
“Well, a couple of them fell into one of my wrinkles the other day. Made quite a racket. Get this: if you squeeze them, they ooze red.”
“I gotta tell Harvard that. He loves red.”

I have lived among mountains and skied on glaciers. And yet, the utter magic of these massive blue structures, and their force in shaping the world around them, never ceases to amaze. On the way out of College Fjord the next day, we run into more humpbacks and orcas. They are swimming alongside the ship. Are they aware of us – I mean, us on board, not us as in the 110,000 tons steel structure gliding noisily through the water? What do they think of us?

The night before last on board, there is a semblance of life in the dance-club. 70s music – at least in principle; the DJ stretches it into the 80s and by 23:30 he’s doing J-Lo and Rihanna. For the first time in four years, I close a dance club down. Just as well, for the next night, the last night on board, proves to be a major disappointment club-wise.


The sixth day and the seventh night is gone; tomorrow, Saturday, we will hold Sabbath in Anchorage, after which, a 14 hour flight and I will be back in Ottawa, in my own bed.

An Alaskan journey: Land ho!

Lunch, walk, nap, bath, writing his report of the Gloomy Knob success and his apology for running away took the rest of the day.  By nine p.m. the sun was setting and Protheroe was feeling fatigued and hungry.  He looked at the copy of the hotel restaurant menu in his room; an item caught his eye: “New England Clam Chowder with Alaskan wild seafood”.  His mouth was filled with the taste of clam chowder in Haymarket.  Twenty years ago.  A distant world – he had travelled there with one of his best friends, an old-fashioned road trip, with paper maps and dirty rest stops and greasy food and water out of coolers and taps, not bottles.  He felt old.  Or, worse: nostalgic.  Perfect, he thought.  With deliberate rush, he headed to the elevators and the restaurant; disappointment set in even before he sat down.

“I’ll have the chowder.”

“Don’t have any.  But we have seafood and vegetable soup.”

Great, he said to himself, old fish drowned in yesterday’s leftover minestrone

“Could I have a drink menu?”

“We, er, don’t have one.”

“You don’t have one?”

“There are more drinks than on our menu.”

“Well, why don’t you expand your menu?” was what he should have said.  Instead, he asked the waiter to list the drinks and ordered the first one.  The waiter looked somewhat dejected.  It was going to be a long flight back.


Overcast; the sea is grey; it’s in the teens. Celsius, but with the damp it feels Fahrenheit.  When we booked the cruise, I decided to have A New Experience each day we were on shore.  In Ketchikan, it was to be snorkelling.

The tour organiser meets us on the pier at 630 am; I have not had coffee, but ate a pain au chocolat and an egg muffin sandwich that, remarkably, tasted the same, that is to say, of nothing at all.

Swimming in cold water in a wetsuit is quite an experience; snorkelling in murky sub-Arctic waters is interesting, to say the least, though perhaps not to be repeated.  Not that I was cold – in fact, if anything, towards the end I was getting a bit hot in the wetsuit and occasionally had to flop around to get some cold water into the suit.  And not that the water and the fish were not as interesting as diving in Jamaica or snorkeling off the coast of Turkey – the star fish were really wonderful.  In fact, I saw and handled starfish, sea cucumbers and sea urchins, and photographed three different sorts of jelly fish (white, translucent and yellow smudges against a green background).

But …  the currents were strong and the kelp forests were quite dense; I have a horror of kelp and the currents made my underwater pictures into mostly green goo.  Nasty things, kelp; they look like witches under water.  NOT that I have anything against witches, mind.  It’s underwater plants pretending to be witches that gives me the willies. No wonder I panic each time I swim in there ….

Now, here’s a thought for a movie: Ketchikan Waiters, modelled on Stepford Wives.  There is an eerie cheeriness to the waiters.  They show up, smiling and introducing themselves, in regular intervals of 1’37″ – just long enough to allow you to get the beginnings of a thought or an anecdote out, but not long enough for you to have finished it.  Conversationus interrumptus, all night long, with one exception: when you really need something (water, wine, defibrillator, life vest).  The cruiseship waiters have a uniform and uncanny capacity not to catch your eye; in their ability to ignore you, they remind me of this line from Orlando: “Here was a man who turned into a woman and lived for four hundred years.  But because we were British, we pretended not to notice.”  And so did they.


Took the “Tramway” to the top of Mt. Roberts.  Actually, it’s a regular gondola/telecabine … but who am I to argue with the locals?  The conductor tells us helpfully that the Tram cost $17 million in 1996 or whatever to construct.  Why I need to know either number is besides me.  Yes, so I know Agatha Christie was earning 50 pounds a year in 1924, but those are relevant numbers; what am I supposed to do with the cost of an Alaskan Tram in 1996? (Now, here is a subject for an entire blog entry: numbers and figures and their relevance.  One of these days.)

The views of Gastineau Inlet are stunning; so are the weathered snowpatches at the top.

But the magnificent vistas are merely appetiser for what is coming in the afternoon: the Whales. And, you know, they don’t, the dear things, disappoint.

I have made a point of never going to an aquarium to see performing orcas or dolphins.  I find it demeaning to them and to myself.  And so far, I have avoided the temptation of going “whale watching”, mostly because I really did not want to be party to the disruption caused to their lives.  But … the interesting thing is that once we remove ourselves as a threat, the animals adjust to us.  Later in the day, we say a bear and her two cubs wandering around the throngs of people visiting Mendenhall Glacier – not only without a care in the world, but with positive security: the bears sometimes leave their cubs to be babysat by the prongs – they know that they (the cubs) are safe from male bears, who hate people more than they like cubflesh.  And so it is with the whales in the various inlets.  They have more or less become accustomed to the passage of the ships and the gawking tourists – a humpback and her calf came alongside the ship and practically waved at us.

And so long as we don’t actively harm them, the whales, much like the cattle in Denning’s cricket fields,* don’t seem to mind.

* “This newcomer has built, or has had built for him, a house on the edge of the cricket ground which four years ago was a field where cattle grazed. The animals did not mind the cricket.”

They might have got accustomed to us; I wonder if we will get accustomed to these magnificent creatures.  The first time a male orca’s fin comes out of the water; when you see humpbacks bubble-netting their prey and then feeding; when they turn with their flukes out of the water and head for the deep … we sat there in the water for two hours, madly taking pictures; and then again, when we came across other pods on the ship, we rushed to the railings and the prow, madly taking pictures; and then again, on the road to Anchorage, when we saw beluga playing in the inlet, we rushed to the bus windows, madly taking pictures … all along, recording the experience as a true experience of something unique, almost magical, certainly primal.

At dinner, my buddy orders “endive salad with field greens.”  A salad arrives with lots of iceberg lettuce and one or two wilted greens that might have, at some point in their life cycle, seen a field of some sort.  After a few wild gestures trying to get the attention of our waiter, a waiter, any waiter, anyone with a uniform, someone arrives.

“I ordered an the salad, which is supposed to be an endive salad.”

“That is the salad.”

“Yes, but the first ingredient on the menu is endives, not iceberg lettuce.”

Waiter takes the salad bowl, tosses it around with his fork and utters, “see there is an endive there.”

He then looks at my friend. “I will get you another one.”  Detective Protheroe is spared solving the Endive Salad Decapitation mystery.

An Alaskan journey: On the high seas

Trooper Mike Levi showed Detective Inspector Protheroe into his hotel room.  Bigger than my cabin, thought Protheroe, though hardly better decorated.  Faded cheap wood furniture; plush beds; a view of Anchorage and its port.  Protheroe checked out the bathroom, well, the marble is a nice touch, he said to himself, good to have a bath, finally

It had been a while – at Melville Manors, before the body was discovered.  Then there was the train and another murder; and Vancouver …

Oh the humiliation.  Here is a body with 34 stab wounds and a severed head, Polaroids of the alleged murderer defiling the corpse … how was he to know that the victim had already been killed – poisoned, for God’s sake – before being stabbed and decapitated?  Alaskan bainberry extract.  In the salmon mousse.  And the butler really did do it this time.  Moral of the story? Just because a homicidal maniac stabs, defiles and dismembers a body, it does not mean he’s a murderer.

Reputation in tatters, Protheroe had driven north … he drove, and he drove.  Somewhere he turned left, and then there was Skagway at the end of the road; running into Trooper Mike in front of the Red Onion Saloon, the mysterious goings on on the Cruiseship, the floating body, reputation spectacularly restored in what the press later called Eye on Gloomy Knob.  And now this, a shabby hotel room with a marble-tiled bathroom in Anchorage, before he heads back to the comforts of his own cold bed in Ottawa …

August 11

Arrival on Board

Melamine platters. Wings and ribs. Pink watermelons.  ‘Coffee’ out of a tap. 

After about two hours waiting in line and being processed by the various authorities, I was looking forward to my first lunch aboard on my first ever cruise.  Or, rather, ‘looking forward’.  We were to be cruising for a week, three of those entirely on board, and no escape.  That was the element of fear, the what if of the unknown.  Then again, I had read much about the quality of the food on board: the five restaurants, the various cafés, the brand new Piazza … that was the element of excitement, the lets unwrap this bon bon of the unknown.

Melamine platters. Wings and ribs. Pink watermelons.  ‘Coffee’ out of a tap. 

Cafeteria style.  The ‘coffee’ is made from coffee syrup.

Seven days and nights of this s***?

The platter was a nice touch.  If, that is, you are obese or bulimic.  We ate quickly and, with the same mix of trepidation and excitement – after the lunch, more trepidation than excitement – set out to explore the ship.  Big.  Parts of it reflect what a 1980s Toronto architect’s conception of luxury for the local Italian community.  The rest, standard pastels right out of Miami Vice.  The ship was built in 2004.  Then again, if Mitt Romney can retire “retroactively,” there is no reason why a ship can’t be decorated retroactively.

That evening, the dinner was considerably more pleasing, and the ambience more pleasant.  That is to say, I had no urge to jump ship.  After dinner, we tried what were advertised as dance clubs; for tumbleweed, perhaps.  And that was the first day and the first night.


Ship at dock, stern

Ship at sea, bridge in view


August 12

At sea

Our first full day on board we were entirely at sea.  The skies overcast; the sea grey.  I brave the elements to swim a few laps in the outdoor pool, dodging diving preteens, and decide that the gym is, on the whole, a better proposition for keeping active on board.  We meet some very interesting people, and make a remarkable discovery: there are five white-linen dining rooms in different fake decors – that was not remarkable – and all have the same menu.  Club Med has more imagination.  The menu has two parts: standard and changing.  The standard menu has the staples of Good Restaurants in Middle Anywhere: shrimp cocktail, tenderloin, chicken breast, Alfredo, blah blah.  The changing menu has some interesting options (lobster, pheasant, lamb in coconut curry, bangers and mash).  But regardless of what one orders off whichever menu in any of the restaurants, the food tastes the same: bland, inoffensive, Cooked Just Right.  Except for the English Platter at lunch – I have no idea why I ordered it, but there you have it – where the lamb and the beef tenderloin are cooked to resemble, and feel like, saddle leather.  On the positive side, they still taste bland, like the kidney and the ham they accompany.  These are my contemporaneous notes: “The green beans are miraculously alive, but to avoid any sensation of virtue, they are drowned in a sea of gravy.”  And the waiters sing.

The dessert menu does not inspire, so I wonder off and run into the Piazza, the midship congregating locale.  In addition to the milky cappuccino ($2.88, forced tip included), they have a tiramisu that is simply divine.  I decide, there and then, that the cruise has been well worth it.  And then I hit the gym to feel less bad about the three tiramisus I put away after dinner.  My notes say 40 minutes on the treadmill.  It was actually an hour; I lied to myself to feel less of a loser for spending so much time in the gym.


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 …