Saturday, October 29, 2022

From ‘A parrot in the pepper tree’ by Chris Stewart


…….country Swedes have an appealing tradition of leaving a light burning all night in the window to cheer the passing traveler………..


When I switched off the engine, I was against struck by the extraordinary stillness of the Swedish winter. There is no wind, and even if there were, the trees would be too heavy in their thick load of frozen snow to move. There are no birds to sing and the sea is silenced by its sarcophagus of ice. The only sound in the landscape is you.


……. the usual Immaculate turnout of Swedish houses. But as the Swedes themselves so nicely put it: Bättre lite skit i hörnet än ett rent helvete – ‘better a little shit in the corner than a clean hell’


‘I usually do it myself, only I've hurt my back- chainsawing in the woods.’ The old Swedish complaint.


I breathed in deep the inimitable Spanish town smell of coffee, garlic and black tobacco……..


….Orgiva Feria - the town's big festival - was the following week……….. Feria is a time of unbelievable cacophony, when the townsfolk go overboard indulging their passion for noise……….The bars in the plaza …….. have sound systems the size of small houses, which thunder and rattle day and night, making it impossible to hold the faintest trace of conversation. Yet the locals just sit there chatting away as though nothing were happening. It's my belief that the Spanish have better evolved ears than the rest of us.

As if the noise isn't enough, Feria is also the time of year when the wind gets up….. it moans and wails around every corner, thick with grit and gravel which stings your eyes and gets into your nose……..


In Sevilla, which is the most romantic city in the world, the heavy cloud of orange-blossom scent that envelops it in spring and early summer drives people mad with love.


Just beneath the peak of Mulhacen, which at 3450m is the highest peak in the Sierra Nevada, indeed in the whole Iberian peninsula, are the borreguiles. In days gone by, a lamb was not considered fit to be eaten until it had passed a summer grazing on the sweet grasses that cloak these high mountain meadows- hence the name, from borrego, which means a lamb…….. Common to them all is the perfect peace, the almost supernatural clarity of the water and the springiness of the deep green grass……… the time to see the  is late May to late July- that's spring in the high Sierra- and somehow, the very fleeting nature of this beauty makes it all the more appealing…….. I was struck dumb by what I saw. The grass was no longer green, it was a sheet of livid blue- a blue so dazzling it seemed to come from outside the normal spectrum of perception. These were the Sierra Nevada gentians. ……..There were two varieties in bloom………the ultramarine………and the delicate, almost luminescent……..


Sheep always do this for some reason; when they see a person, they squat and pee- unless of course they happen to be rams, in which case they just stand around and dribble.

From ‘Driving Over Lemons. An optimist in Andalucia’ by Chris Stewart

 It eyed us for a moment, then performed that trick that has so endeared the goat to mankind since the beginnings of time, the simultaneous belch and fart.


A thick silence ensued. I felt like a dead pig in a tea room.


…. few country people over fifty here have an inkling about their written language.


Seven o'clock, the afternoon gone, but now not only was the sun burning fiercely from high in the sky, but all the hills and rocks were giving back as good as they had got and radiating heat vengefully back into the air. The air, sandwiched between its tormentors, had given up and lay draped over the valley like a rag.


It must have been the Perseids: mid August is usually the time for this shower of meteors to pass


……….pigs love figs and they would squabble and bounce about with glee………. everyone around here keeps pigs, fattening them through the year and killing them, at the traditional matanzas, in the fly-free days of winter……… any other time and flies and wasps would amass in a frenzy of looting and spoil the neighborly business of slaughter. For the same reason the days grim deed starts early in the cool of the morning.


Then he helped himself, while Maria crouched beside him and picked at bits from his plate. This seemed to be their preferred way of eating, she like one of those birds that pick the ticks off the backs of hippopotami.


She was currently working through maths and physics and veterinary science, and in order to prevent her outlook on life becoming too earnest, was reading Swiss satirical magazines in French and German. Try as I might, I found it impossible to imagine the Swiss as a fund of satirical humor. I said as much to Janet. ‘Yes… yes, Chris, you’re perfectly right. They don't have any humor at all. In fact, the Swiss have the sort of sense of humor you'd expect a dog to have!’


Manuel’s stories were too good to doze through. He told them well, fluently and with a fine sense of balance and dramatic timing. Those who cannot read or write have the advantage in this; the ability to keep a long story in one's head tends to diminish with literacy.

Friday, October 14, 2022

From ‘On Rue Tatin’ by Susan Loomis

 ……… I had always heard the French were cold and somewhat austere………


Admittedly, France is set up for small children. Working mothers get a lot of time off to have children, and a good deal of financial support from the state as well. There are many options for their babies when they do go back to work- either a state-run creche, which is like a daycare center but more personal and set up for tiny babies and very young children, or nounou, babysitter, who generally works at her home and takes no more than three children at the time. At age three children start school, and they can stay there from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day if parents desire, as lunch, snacks and nap time are provided.


It had three gas burners and one electric, a curious but common quirk in French stoves. The electric burner was like an emergency burner should the gas be cut off, apparently created after the Second World War when this often happened.


I have seen her sewing on buttons in the dark, refinishing banisters, painting, scraping, organizing, cleaning. I asked her why she works in the dark………… I think I know why. I've met lots of older people in France who do much the same thing. I think it dates from before and during the Second World War, when electricity was scarce, then very expensive. It is still outrageously expensive. One look at a French electrical bill and anyone would be tempted to spend their lives in the dark.


Working in the dark is one of those French ‘things', like the national dislike for Jerusalem artichokes (they were the main staple for most people during the war); The conviction that all ills result from the liver (though we hear fewer references to le foie than we used to); The notion that crying is good for babies because it strengthens their lungs. There is no real sense in arguing about any of these things, nor in trying to change one's opinion. It's part of the national character and you have to love it or ignore it.


French doctors have a penchant for prescribing quantities of medicine for the slightest ailment………. truly the quantity of medicines prescribed often borders on the absurd……


…… the multiple skin treatments which help French skin look so lovely

Applying a unique scent is an innate French skill, shared by men and women. I never fail to be charmed when, for instance, a plasterer or friend comes to help Michael work on the house and I catch a whiff of his perfume as we exchange our obligatory four kisses – two on each cheek. Parents as they walk their children to school leave a sweet scent behind them, as do babysitters and truck drivers, cafe owners and the mayor.


Dogs are royalty in France and nothing, but nothing, is too good for them.


Her background is Portuguese, which is noticeable in her jet black hair, beautiful white skin and stately proportions, and in her food, which is fresh, lively, unusual.


On the other hand, corn on the cob is something of an exotic in France, where it has only recently become available at all.


Showrooms in France aren't like showrooms in the US. They don't usually have much in them, and the customer is required to have a great deal of faith in photographs, and the salesperson.


……… Italians aren't noted for the quality of their kitchen equipment. In fact Italian kitchen equipment manufacturers are rather like Italian politicians- they change all the time and have short staying power.

……… For all the glories of French cuisine, most meals cooked in a French home today are prepared in kitchens the size of a large bathroom on the simplest of stoves with maybe four Cold this girl, but often just three burners and one tiny oven. The grandiose French kitchen belongs to a bygone era


I wondered, understanding how important conformity is in this often frustratingly conformist country.


……….. shoes slightly scuffed - Frenchman always seem to ignore that one detail of their dress.


……… In general French parents yell at their kids a great deal, so we weren't entirely surprised that this carried over into school.


As the pregnancy progressed I met the considerable obligations imposed on me by the French medical system, which included the monthly blood test for toxoplasmosis. When I asked doctor at the clinic why I had to have a test every single month he rolled his eyes. ‘It is a disease discovered by a Frenchman. We are very proud to have discovered it, thus we must test constantly for it. It is ridiculous.’


Champagne, I had learned, is an integral part of a French pregnancy. Every single time I announced to friends that I was pregnant they broke out a bottle and insisted I drink a glass. ‘Champagne is good for pregnant mothers,’ they would say. I believe them and sipped completely free of guilt


There appears to be no taboo in France on alcohol during pregnancy……….

From ‘Why I'm crazy about Japan. Heartwarming and rib tickling stories from the Land of the Rising Sun’ by Ashutosh V Rawal

 If for some reason, the train is delayed by more than two minutes, all passengers get a delay certificate which they can show at their office should they require to. This kind of discipline and respect for time can only be experienced in Japan. I have traveled across the world and been to over 70 countries but I have never seen this kind of culture anywhere.

From ‘The Travel Gods must be crazy. Wacky encounters in exotic lands’ by Sudha Mahalingam

 Yazd is a fascinating desert town stuck in a time warp. Its labyrinthine streets are lined with adobe houses whose earthy hues are relieved every now and then by exquisite turquoise tile panels and ornamental doorways. The intricately carved wooden doors have double knockers - a slender one for woman visitors and a sturdy one for men. Depending on the sound from the knocker, the residents of the house could decide whether the door would be opened by a male or female………………

Joyce……….. the most sobering declaration; Of all the countries she had traveled through, India was where she had faced the worst sexual harassment. She narrated harrowing tales of how she had been groped and pinched, probed and propositioned in most places she had traveled to.


…. Moreh, a sleepy border town between Myanmar and Manipur. Maraikayar, Tamil Muslim, has been a Moreh resident for over forty years now, and dabbles in everything from dosas to gems…… I had come to his roadside eatery lured by the Tamil board outside which advertised dosas in this most unlikely corner of India, the Manipur - Myanmar border.…….. Tamil population in Moreh - they all came from the east, many on foot, trudging for months through the malarial jungles of what was then known as Burma, during the Second World War. Those days, there used to be a huge Tamil expat population in Malaysia, mostly traders. The lot comprised refugees fleeing Japanese- occupied lands, traders from Penang and beyond. When they reached the Indian border, some were too tired to trudge any further and chose to settle down there. They went on to build their own Tamil schools, of which there are five now, and an equal number of Tamil temples.…………… Tamil settlers in Moreh trade in ginger mostly, but also do a bit of smuggling on the side- mostly Chinese blankets, thermos flasks, torches and, perhaps other contraband…………..

Moreh is the very last town on the Indian side of the border.

…..Swampy and mosquito- ridden, it was a picture of despair. But for the disenfranchised lot of Tamils who could not find a home in prosperous Malaya……………… it was a land of opportunity………..

Curiosity takes me to the other side of the border, a Myanmarese village called Tamu………………… I can't believe my eyes. This tiny, nondescript village in a godforsaken corner of the jungle has a row of shops stocked to the gills with……………. ruby- studded jewellery………… there are also heaps of rubies and sapphires, cats iron and peridot, jade and topaz, all neatly arranged in bowls and sold by the carat. I have never seen so much jewellery and so many gems in one place, not even in the jewellery section of Mustafa store in Singapore…………….. obviously, they must be doing brisk business; why else would they be there?



Wadi Musa, the jumping-off point for Petra……….. It's high street is littered with star chains- in fact, the highest concentration of five star hotels anywhere in the world.


Pushkar, congested, crowded and dirty by day, is magically transformed by evening……………. The ghats, swarming with bathers and seekers of spiritual salvation, become bereft and silent as night falls…………. seekers of a different kind of salvation, emerge out of the shadows; the gullies and lanes are now enveloped in a haze from their chillums.


…….. Seville………. What we find is a dreary town with uninspiring concrete blocks. The romantic sounding Guadalquivir is nothing but a foul ditch winding its way through the towns congested streets.


………Samarkand’s city square, is easily among the most magnificent in the entire world, at par with Emam square in Isfahan.


Once taller than the Andes, now reduced to a stub just 348 meters in height, Uluru is nevertheless stunning, whichever angle you view it from.


Tuesday, April 19, 2022

From ‘The Subtle Art of Not giving a Fuck. A counterintuitive approach to living a good life’ by Mark Manson

There is a bluntness to Russian culture that generally rubs Westerners the wrong way. Gone are the fake niceties and verbal webs of politeness. You don't smile at strangers or pretend to like anything you don't. In Russia, if something is stupid, you say it's stupid. If someone is being an asshole you tell him he's being an asshole. If you really like someone and are having a great time, you tell her that you like her and are having a great time. It doesn't matter if this person is your friend, a stranger, or someone you met five minutes ago on the street……….

I remember discussing this dynamic with my Russian teacher one day, and he had an interesting theory. Having lived under communism for so many generations, with little to no economic opportunity and caged by a culture of fear, Russian society found the most valuable currency to be trust. And to build trust you have to be honest. That means when things suck, you say so openly and without apology. People’s displays of unpleasant honesty were rewarded for the simple fact that they were necessary for survival - you had to know whom you could rely on and whom you couldn't, and you needed to know quickly.

But in the “free” West, my Russian teacher continued, there existed an abundance of economic opportunity - so much economic opportunity that it became far more valuable to present yourself in a certain way, even if it was false, then to actually be that way. Trust lost its value. Appearances and salesmanship became more advantages forms of expression. Knowing a lot of people superficially was more beneficial than knowing a few people closely.

This is why it became the norm in western cultures to smile and say polite things even when you don't feel like it, to tell little white lies and agree with someone whom you don't actually agree with. This is why people learn to pretend to be friends with people they don't actually like, to buy things they don't actually want. The economic system promotes such deception.

The downside of this is that you never know, in the West, if you can completely trust the person you're talking to. Sometimes this is the case even among good friends or family members. There is such pressure in the West to be likable that people often reconfigure their entire personality depending on the person they're dealing with.


Monday, April 18, 2022

From ‘Undiplomatic Incidents’ by Apa Pant


President Nasser of Egypt …… As Indian ambassador in Cairo I was once involved in organizing a charity show of the Indian Film Mother India for the Egyptian Red Crescent movement.

Knowing how busy the president’s schedule of engagements was, I indicated, while inviting him to grace the charity show, that he need not actually stay for more than a few minutes, particularly since Indian films were, in any case, far too long

…….. When Nasser arrived at the theater, I thanked him profusely …… I reminded him that he need only stay for ten minutes ….. Nasser turned to me and asked me whether I had seen Mother India. Outraged at the suggestion that I wasted my time on Indian films, I replied, ‘Of course not, Your Excellency.’

Nasser said softly, ‘Mr Ambassador, I have already seen the film twice and I want to see the whole of it again for a third time!’