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.

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 ….

The End of the World


The world did not come to an end.  At least not for humanity as a whole.  But an era is slowly, almost imperceptibly, coming to a close, the mileposts of its terminal state: two deaths.  Unlike Kim Kardashian, Eric Hobswam and Jacques Barzun did not have their own dedicated media empires; their claim to recognition does not arise out of surviving a trial, à la OJ, or undergoing the trial of Survival, as our minor celebrities on far flung islands; they brokered no peace and brought about no war; they led no one off a cliff, fiscal or otherwise; the highest award humanity, or at least the Swedish Academy and the Norwegian Parliament, bestows upon its most illustrated does not even include a category in which they could have competed.

And yet.

They – the one an unrepentant communist, the other an unreformed conservative – chronicled, analysed and bore witness to the march of modern history, especially over the past century.  With them dies not just a tradition of historiography, not just two immense stores of knowledge and wisdom, but two eye-witnesses of and to the most lamentable and exalted period in human existence.  It is thus fitting that I close this year by marking their passing and commending their wisdom to you all.

In From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun laments the descent of man from the heights of the Renaissance to the Age of Kardashian.  It is a magisterial history of the rise of Western culture and what to Barzun, the conservative historian, appeared as its slow and perhaps terminal decline over the past hundred years.  Now, it is possible to exaggerate the splendour, intellectual and physical, of the Medici court and ignore the squalor of a Borgia pope, all the while lamenting how we ended up with Trump and Fox News in their stead.  Barzun is not so crude; and his history is, for the most part, a celebration of the human.  It is worth reading for that, but also for the coda, the Twentieth Century, that gave rise to Penicillin and the Holocaust; the iPad and the Great Leap Forward.  To that, he bore witness to the “decadence” of a century in which the sole object of humanity appeared to be the crushing of the human spirit.

Hobswam closes his series of books chronicling much the same period with The Age of Extremes, a history of what he called the Short Twentieth Century (I am half-way through an already well-dog-eared volume).  A communist to his death, he nevertheless retained to the end, more than any other historian I have read, an unerring and unforgiving objectivity.  He, too, is not enamoured of a century that brought one war upon another, one revolution built on the last, one massacre after the next.  And yet, for each chronicle of war or disaster, there is one of magnificent progress, even in this, the deadliest, the most decadent of all centuries.  It is impossible to read of the rise of South Korea, the rebirth of Germany and of Japan, the pacific dismantling of the British empire, the progress of women and the enormous cultural and scientific advances of the last fifty years and not feel hopeful for humanity.

And so, as if by prior accord, the two eminent historians of the last century, each belonging to the opposite end of the spectrum from the other, have departed and by that put at least a semi-colon, if not a full-stop, after the period they chronicled, a period of extremes, of dawn and decadence, in our own lifetimes.

From one extreme – a historical era – to another – our daily lives.  As I step out of my 45th year in under two weeks (I assure you, I will look not even a day older as I advance in age by a whole year – a feat, I know, but I am special after all), it is increasingly the concrete and not the abstract that occupies my mind.  My niece Eliana remains a daily source of wonder, amusement and delight. “My entire family loves me just because of being me,” she told me the other night, as I was trying to get her to sleep.  Yes, we do.  And therein lies the great secret of the universe: as long as there are children, there is only dawn; decadence belongs to the cranky historian.

The city is under a deep cover of snow; darkness descends; the fire roars; my cup of (spiked) hot chocolate is almost done; I must bring this to a close and head to dinner.  It’s snowing.  But I know that even as they grow colder, the days are already getting longer; there is a lesson in there somewhere.

Seville: May 1990

We got there after ten days in Portugal; it was my first trip to Spain – an introduction that led to a life-long romance.

The reception on arrival was cold, brutal: at the first restaurant, we waited for half an hour before a server would deign to serve us, and then another half hour before we got the food – a dry, rubbery and tasteless omelette that would have done well to stay in the kitchen. Naturally, no bread or water while we waited; when the bread came eventually, stale and equally tasteless, we were charged for it – and no butter.  The contrast between the warm welcome we received everywhere we went in Lisbon, Faro and Madeira was striking. We thought perhaps it was just the one place; we were to discover that the standard of service and friendliness in southern Spain was markedly different from – that is, significantly worse than – that in Portugal. Then there was the perplexed couple in the American Express office: all their luggage had been stolen – from the trunk of a car parked in a busy thoroughfare and left alone, locked, for only five minutes. If only the cooks and the servers were as efficient as the thieves …

Ach – service, shmervice.

It was difficult not to fall in love with the city (and, eventually, the country). We had just come from an island overflowing with exotic flowers, and yet were mesmerised by Seville’s abundance of colour. The architecture was captivating, and its people among the most beautiful I have seen anywhere. But for the traffic, the smog, the heat, the thieves and 25% unemployment, I could see myself living there. Well, that and the uncertain driving of the Spaniards, who did not seem to have any regard for the pedestrian or the pavement on which one walked, let alone other cars, traffic lights, cops, buildings or street markings.

Me being me, our first tourist port of call was the cathedral. It is reputed to be the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and the third or fourth largest church altogether. My memories of the interior are fuzzy and generally not positive. It has none of the grace of Notre Dame, the history of Reims, the light of Bourge or the charm of Chartres.  The grimness of the cathedral was particularly striking given the lightness of the Alcazar practically across the street.  Yet again, the human trumped the divine.  We spent the afternoon walking around the orange and lemon groves; picked a few and ate an orange by the reflecting pools.

We then set out for a walk around town. We crossed the Guadalquivir – and I think it was the south side of the river – to where there were a few bars that were just filling up.  A particular bar caught my eye, or rather, my ear: it was playing Granados’ Danza Oriental.  The rest were full of rowdy teenagers and loud music.  And so it was that we settled on Casa Grande, the faded skeleton of a once proud meeting place for the young and the young at heart, now a sleazy tavern on the banks of the Guadalquivir, across the narrow alleyway from the neighbourhood police station.

The red velvet of the sofas and the chairs was torn and faded, the once gilded carvings had lost their lustre, the brass railings and door handles looked dirty and badly in need of a shine, and the tap – it looked like an antique – was broken and no longer dispensed drinkable beer. Where once, it seemed, the Seville society trod and chatted, looking across the river at the beautiful outline of the city skyline against a moonlit sky, now drunken men slumbered on tables stacked with empty bottles and glasses.

And the stains on the carpet? Once, I suppose, the carpet sported spilled champagne and the finest Bordeaux or Rioja; now – now it was difficult to tell which was the real colour of the carpet and which the stain. But the guitars were playing on and refused to be drowned out by the pounding of the beat of modern music in the neighbouring clubs.  We went in and sat down on the only available seats at the bar. The bartender, a small bespectacled man of indeterminate age, looked at us, muttered something incomprehensible, and gave us beer. Only one kind of beer was available, and it tasted as though it had grown stale and flat along with the old bartender and the older bar and the decrepit furniture. But something in the atmosphere was reassuring. Whether it was the music or the old bartender, it felt good to know that some things do last, not just mirthless cathedrals or Moorish palaces, but the essence of a culture, of a people; carpet stains and hand marks on brass railings and faded velvet sofas and torn curtains and chipped statuettes and smoky wall papers and old bartenders; the stench of rotting fish – was it from the river or the nearby market? – and of cheap alcohol, mixed with the ancient lingering traces of expensive perfumes of bygone times, or even spilt blood when the Republicans had crossed the Guadalquivir; the echoes of the silly chatter or perhaps war commands that must have filled this room in their time.  Were we insane to have picked this place?

We stayed there for a couple of drinks; not a single word passed between us; nothing needed to be said. We were too enchanted and revolted by this place, we were absorbing the atmosphere, and the guitars kept on playing, and there was nothing to say.
When we left the weather had cooled down a bit, and it was much more comfortable to walk around than it had been in the afternoon.

The next day we headed south, to Cadiz and Gibraltar.

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.

Skagway 003

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.

SONY DSC College Fjord 037 College Fjord 030


SONY DSC Glacier Bay 030

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.


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




A Canadian adventure: Day one

August 5, 2012

I know I can get through this. My fingers are twitching. There is a buzzing in my ear. I’m fidgety. There is a sense of loss: the profound missing of a thing that has been with you day and night for ten years, or more, and now is gone. Vanished. Replaced by an X. Everywhere. I’m paralysed. Eyes roving round. All is lost.

As of this writing, I have been without internet and mobile connection for sixteen hours. If an email, or a text, does not reach you, has it been sent? If no email is sent to you, do you even exist? I have been filling the time, to be sure. There is that thing we used to do, in days long gone. Con-ver-sation, I think, it was called. Where you have an actual person in front of or next to you, and you let your mouth, and not your fingers, do the talking. Quaint. The conversation goes on, uninterrupted by text or telephone or email. There appears to be a coherent flow of logic, argument and/or narrative. Confusing. There is a lag, a lull; no email or text to check and distract. What to do? Come up with a new topic, that’s what the Wise Ones used to advise in the old days. Distressing.

I am on board the Canadian, fitfully traversing Northern Ontario.

Destination Vancouver, in three days. The train is rolling along fine, making photos a hash of smears and mis-exposure. And then, with no warning, it slows down and grinds to a halt. We wait. A freight train (three locomotives and 167 cars) passes.

We restart. Train rolls; pictures get smudged; we come to a slow halt. Fitfully.

In just three hours I will break my own record of length of time on a train.

Last time, it was between Lisbon and San Sebastian. Or Donostia in the local language. The accents are missing – assuming they were needed in the first place. With no internet; how can I check spelling? How can I ensure accuracy? How do I know that anything I think I know is still true? Eighteen hours and change. My recollection of that ride is as vivid as if it happened just last week; which says nothing at all about the accuracy of what I think I remember, only that the pictures I conjure up are remarkably lucid. Technicolour, even. (HD, for the young ‘uns.) A woman, darkly beautiful, bare bronzed shoulders, luscious lips, eyes ready, Carmen-like, to direct a dagger into an unfaithful lover’s back. A slight man in his early twenties; glasses slipping down his nose; reading a thick book, well-thumbed-through; the kind of young man who, those days, looked forward to the promise of an Erasmus scholarship for a term in the Hague and a term in Athens and who, these days, has the prospect of endless unemployment and potential recruitment into the latest crypto-fascist promise of “a better life under an iron hand.”

The train comes to a stop. There is a muffled announcement; movement in the corridors; fresh air rushes in. We are let out. Hornepayne. A small town of 1700. One restaurant; one variety store; an abandoned elementary school right next to the train tracks – city-planning this far north requires work. Mobile access! And nothing. Just a spam email. Does anyone not care that I have not been in touch for sixteen hours? Legs stretched, we are back on board. Connection gone, lost, once again. Soon the train is swaying as it speeds into the night. Just one spam email in sixteen hours. I feel not just lost and disconnected, but bereft.

Stop before Winnipeg

Train. Spain. Carmen. Nerd. And two farmer types, so short that their feet did not touch the ground as they sat back in the chair; rotund, and a waft of manure. The husband and wife stare at me the entire time they are in the cabin, which is about six hours. They get off but the effects of their staring, like the waft of manure and hay, is left behind.

No peasants on this trip; no Carmen; and only one or two nerd types in a 22-car train. A lot of retirees and some overseas tourists. And at least two federal civil servants. Still in Ontario, but darkness has landed gently all around us and so there is nothing to be seen out there; the cloud cover hides the sky from our searching eyes.

The Canadian is advertised not only for comfort or scenery but for its food. This is the first time in six years that I am eating in a train dining car. Last time was in Italy. Train from Venice to Geneva. I remember going through the mountains, but the food, aside from its price, remains out of reach in my memory. Or, at least, my brain fails to reconstruct, true or not, a new history of that trip. The dining experience on board our Canadian train is certainly special. This is a white linen service. The food is fresh and while perhaps not quite as good as advertised, is still very good. (Cajun veal chop for dinner: excellent; salmon at lunch: good; the greens were crunchy and the salad was crisp – which is about the only thing you could ask for. Overall, the food is about as good as it has any right to be in a train dining room.)

The first day comes to a close.

The adventure continues …