Finland, Finland, Finland

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It’s refreshing right now, in the sweltering midday heat of Rome in early July, to remember that there are places on this planet which were once coldIf only we’d all done more to prevent the planet overheating in the first place. I did try, a bit. In early December 2009 I had two trips planned to Nordic Europe* within the course of ten days. My plan was that I would visit my friends in Tampere (in Finland), fly back to London and then, the following day, take another plane to Copenhagen to join the protest at the Climate Conference. As it happened, on the morning after returning from Finland I was too skint, exhausted and hungover to travel to Denmark. At least I avoided any awkward questions about my dependence on unsustainable modes of transport. 

Not that I regretted  going to Finland: I subsequently went back twice in the space of three years. It was somewhere I felt an immediate affinity with. On my first visit I took immense pleasure in the complicatedness of the language. It was about three degrees and falling quickly in the early December Helsinki midafternoon, as I wandered round in circles both concentric and eccentric and asked passers-by one of the two or three phrases I knew: ‘Missä on… Ekaterinaburgkatu?’ – Where is Ekaterinaburg Street? I had no idea what the answers meant but, having long held the opinion that the best way to discover a new city is to get lost in it, didn’t mind zigzagging around for a couple of hours. Paying careful attention to where people were pointing eventually helped narrow it down when the winter wind became too much to bear.

The people I was staying with in Helsinki were from Russia but had made their home in Finland. Ironically, it was partly through them that I began to get a sense of the unfussy hospitality which characterises Finland, which is, after all, not Brazil: it’s not a culture which goes out of its way to impress or charm visitors. People instead exhibit a quiet, uneffusive generosity. Some of that stoicism must be to do with the climate. In the Kiasma gallery I came across a remarkable artwork consisting of a wood cabin, starkly furnished, complemented by a toy train set which gave off an occasional melancholy wail. Inside the cabin TV screens showed blurred images of snowstormed forests soundtracked by heartbreaking stories of people going missing in month-long blizzards.

Subsequently learning something about history introduced me to the concept of sisu, a kind of hardiness particular to Finnish culture  and strongly associated with the staggering sacrifices of the Winter War with Russia. On the subject of suffering, getting deeper into Finnish culture would would mean dealing with the terrifying range of cases central to its famously impenetrable language (essive, inessive, ablative, illative…), which despite my attempts to rationalise them away as sort-of-like-prepositions-but-just-tagged-on-as-suffixes defy normal human understanding.

Heading north on the train I appreciated the silence and space. Outside the main cities Finland often feels barely inhabited. People told me that you can travel for days through the forest and not see a helvetin soul. This sparseness seemed to extend to the consumer economy. I enjoyed the fact that on the train there was a drink you could buy called ‘coffee’, as opposed to the skinny-grande-double-pump-caramel-gingerbread-latte-nonsense on offer in more crowded parts of Europe.

Tampere felt familiar, unsurprisingly so as it’s known as the Manchester of Finland. It has lots of remnants of its industrial past and maintains a similar deadpan sensibility: not so much dry as frozen wit. Among most Finnish people generally I’ve noticed (and admired) a certain earthiness which connects to my own northern roots, particularly when it comes to swearing. I am (courtesy of my friend Steve) the proud possessor of two of the most uproariously graphic insults in any human language, and although posting them here might result in my getting banned from WordPress for life I’m happy to email them to anyone who requests them.

Although it doesn’t reveal anything particularly edifying about my lifestyle at the time, I liked the Finnish relationship with drink. It felt that you could (if you had the money) sit in a bar in your trusty old pullover and three pairs of pyjama trousers and continue drinking until you passed out gracefully onto the sawdust floor to the sound of muttered voices and plaintive blues music. The limited variety of menu options and the narrow range of eating establishments suggested a disinterest in food which I, living in food outlet-saturated London at the time, found refreshing. There was also a carefreeness in the way that people left you alone. Nobody started talking to me just because I was from elsewhere. The society didn’t need my presence, and I appreciated its cool (because uncool) indifference. My memories of my first visit are suffused in a bluey-white blur of very strong alcohol and the weave of extremely thick socks. 

Out on the streets I found more signs of that unfussiness and lack of pretension. I was amused by the surreality of Tampere’s musty Lenin Museum and the existence of a strip bar simply called ‘Big Tits’ (I didn’t go inside to find out how big). Finland’s neuroses (about drink, sex, other people) seemed to be on the surface. Maybe that’s what it (famously) has in common with Japan, a place I’ve still never been to but have heard described as having no subconscious. It’s easy to diagnose what’s wrong with Finland: it’s cold most of the year, people drink too much, nobody says please or thank you and everyone commits suicide regularly. As it happens, in ‘The Spirit Level’, published earlier that year, I’d read that in happier countries people kill themselves more. Lots of people doing themselves in is a better indication of social bonhomie than everybody killing everyone else.

I took a trip to my friends’ country home in a tiny village called Auttoinen. Their house was a sprawling place of immense human warmth reinforced by the (exotic by comparison with private rented apartments back home) decent insulation and central heating. The energy-saving ethos extended to the local bar, where words were employed sparingly by the local ‘juntti’ (yokels). You couldn’t call it entertaining but it was, also, exotic. I recognised the mood from any number of films by Aki Kaurismaki, Finland’s leading exponent abroad. This clip succinctly captures the dark, dour wit of many of his works, and if you’re intrigued and have got ten minutes to spare, there’s another short film here (the subtitles are in Spanish, but don’t let that you put you off) (unless you don’t understand Spanish, obviously**).

My second visit took place during the summer solstice in 2011. Between June and August all of Finland heads for the countryside, particularly the lakes, of which there are apparently well over 100,000. If you can avoid the enormous local horseflies known as paarma – not quite as big as your average baby shark, but six times as vicious – it feels like paradise. At a midsummer party in Auttoinen I made friends with increasingly cheerful locals and some expat Africans who told me some hilarious stories about their interactions with more taciturn Finns. A Tanzanian told me about the marked difference between taking a seat on a nearly empty bus back home (sit down next to new friend, shake hands, pass time of day) and doing so in Finland (see other passenger, leave bus, go home, shoot oneself in head). It was difficult for them to adjust to the less convivial culture, and they were working as cleaners or musicians while trying to establish themselves. They seemed frustrated with the lack of opportunities for advancement open to them, but not about to give up on the country having invested so much time and energy into it. They were true Finns now, after all.

The next day on the train to Helsinki I picked up a leaflet aimed at newcomers wanting to learn Finnish. It was written in (excellent) English and was entirely positive in tone, rather than admonishing as would be the case in the rather-more-grudging UK. Back in the Kiasma I bought a book published by Sternberg (in the same series and spirit as the same publisher’s duo of Momus novels ‘The Book of Japans’ and ‘The Book of Scotlands’) which posits alternative future Finlands to replace the inevitably collapsing Welfare State, including a Finland which is repurposed as a nuclear waste storage facility. Another thing it imagines is a road bridge between Helsinki and Tallin, and as it happens I spent my 37th birthday travelling by ferry between Finland and Estonia, where I’m surprised to find that, contrary to everything I’ve ever been told about the Finnish language being totally unique but for a deeply buried lexical connection to Hungarian, Estonian looks and sounds almost identical. There is a short but silly photographic account of my adventures in Tallin here.

If lakes are important to the Finnish summer experience, having access to an island multiplies the fun. A friend of a friend had borrowed half of a small one for the season, and we spent an endless night with his friends from the other side of the island drinking something that tasted like licorice but had a strong aftertaste of something like ayahuasca. You couldn’t really call it a late night because night didn’t arrive, dusk turning straight into dawn. Waking up in the cabin it no longer felt like there was any limit between myself and other objects. PerkeleFrom downstairs I could smell my friend (who had been in Finland for more than ten years and so had acquired a measure of sisu) frying up some bacon. When I showed my face, which evidently looked like it’d just been through the winter wars, he politely invited me to go and jump in the lake. Having taken his sterling advice and chilled my bones to the marrow, I then went straight onto the small sauna he’d prepared and stayed there til it felt like all the alcohol I’d ever consumed was washed out of my skin, then took another dive into the lake, went back in the sauna, repeated the whole rinse cycle two or three times, and then began replenishing the lost salt and alcohol with a bacon sandwich and a beer.

One my third visit, in June 2012, I was accompanied by my then-girlfriend-now-wife. Being from Italy, she had been reliably informed by older, wiser generations of compatrioti that Finland is freezing cold all year round and that she would almost certainly get eaten by a polar bear. In reality it was 30 degrees. After a few days in Auttoinen introducing her to my friends and soaking up the rays (and the rain), we headed for the Turku archipeleago, where, driving round the labyrinth of tiny islands along tiny twisting roads and on and off, it felt like I was finally unravelling the tangled mess I’d made of my life. In Turku itself we stayed on a large boat in a cabin the size of a small mosquito, and by day walked around the town cooing at all the wonders of the nordic model of social democracy, with its large well-illuminated library reminding us that shopping need not be the be and end-all of a city. We visited the castle, and admired the fact that it wasn’t suffused in marketing overexcitability, that it wasn’t trying too hard to sell itself to us as ‘the authentic Finnish experience of medieval Suomiland’ or whatever nonsense some marketing genius in London would have been inspired to think up.

I’ve never lived in Finland and probably never will. I’m aware that many do and find it frustrating and unwelcoming. Personally, I find its existence a comfort. If, in the thankfully unlikely event I ever found myself existentially alone and listless, I would take a plane to Tampere, don my favourite pullover and at least three pairs of pyjama trousers, and head for a downtown bar to partake in a delicious, revolting glass of some sort of weird licorice drink, and after two or three sips lower myself gently to the sawdust-strewn floor. In the meantime, in summer 2018 to be precise, I will be back there, now-wife and new-baby in tow, for a hopefully paarma and polar bear-free midsummer holiday. Nähdään pian!** 

*This used to say Scandanavia but I was swiftly put right, kiitos Richard Millar.
**This now links to a version with subtitles in English, but I thought this was quite a good joke so I’m leaving it as it is, thanks anyway to Sandrita Toledo.
***I told you the language was tricky, it took me about ten minutes to type that phrase.

P.s. Anyone worried that nordic countries are being invaded by legions of hate-filled new arrivals who don’t respect basic values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence will find supportive evidence for such a view in a Facebook group called Foreigners in Finland, where immigrants from Italy, Bulgaria and the UK (the sort of people who are so patriotic they couldn’t stand to live in their ‘own’ countries) spend their time in Finland bitching about other, less privileged, newcomers. I believe the local phrase to describe such people is ‘vitun urpo’ (not that they’ll have bothered to learn the language, but still :-)). This one’s for them 

I love Cuba

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Of all the abuse that the term ‘authentic’ has come in for over the years, nothing can have prepared it for the outright torture it is subjected to in an advert currently showing on the metro in Rome for authenticcuba.com. Ordinary life for the average Cuban apparently revolves around a succession of five-star hotel lobbies, exclusive spa treatments and gourmet meals of the very highest international standards.

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Although Cuban society is changing, it hasn’t quite yet reached that point of being synonymous with luxury and exclusivity. Maybe the people who made the ad got it confused with Dubai. As an erstwhile/occasional radical Marxist communist revolutionary type who also happens to speak Spanish, I’d always felt slightly ashamed of never having been there when it was more authentically egalitarian. My wife hadn’t either, because early until last year she worked for a (large human rights organisation which isn’t recognised there) defending Caribbean human rights and thus always assumed that she wouldn’t be allowed in. But given that (as of May 2016) we were living not very far away (in Mexico) and that she was leaving her job after seven years, it seemed not to foolish not to give it a whirl. As it happened, the day we arrived was the day after she’d left that job, and it only occurred to us as we approached immigration that if her name was on some sort of list it wasn’t like the hyperefficient Cuban bureaucracy would have removed it in the preceding 24 hours. It’ll be fine, I blithely reassured her, just as a uniformed official stepped in front of us and asked us where we were from and what we did for a living. ¡Ih!

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After 15 or so minutes of slightly evasive light interrogation we were free to enjoy Cuba’s manifold splendors and contradictions, the most prominent of which was occasioned by our very presence there. While in Cuba we we spent about $100 a day (in CUC, the convertible dollar equivalent as opposed to the peso nacional, which is worth 25 times less), five times what very many Cubans working full-time in professional jobs earn in a month. Now, let’s imagine that where you live there was a huge numbers of visitors to whom $3,000 dollars had the same value as $20 has for you. You’d probably badger them, a bit. You’d might even learn to play the guitar, just in case they liked that sort of thing. You’d try to provide whatever services might be to their liking. So it’s easy to see why so many doctors, university professors, teachers and so on are driving taxis, renting out their flats or offering up the odd autentico sex act.

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For various reasons (some frankly superstitious and some eminently sensible, given the embargo and the dangers of suddenly spiralling inequality), there are stringent restrictions on private commerce. Some forms of economic activity are allowed, others prohibited. The fact that food is not on the list makes for a startling contrast with Mexico. If you accepted all the offers you receive for cheap and tasty food in Mexico City you’d be dead within 15 minutes; in Cuba, even with (by local standards) an infinite amount of cash to spend, you can still find yourself if not hungry then certainly a bit frustrated.

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Access to a small quantity of some daily essentials is guaranteed via a system of rationing. Every family receives a small amount of rice, sugar, matches, and oil every month. It’s not enough, but it is essential. Petrol is also cheap thanks to an ongoing (although maybe not for much longer) agreement with Venezuela, and public transport costs next to nothing. Healthcare and education are famously provided by the state. Both housing and private cars seem to be passed down and carefully maintained on a minimum of resources. People get by, some barely. A successfully waylaid tourist late in the month can mean the difference between eating and going hungry.

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The dual currency policy is a useful educational tool for tourists. In other countries, the existence of a single currency disguises the fact that there are different economies in society, some in direct conflict with others. The London housing market is a good examples of this, and the imbalances in Mexican society, between those (like us) who can happily throw around 70 pesos on a cup of coffee and those for whom that sum represents 16 hours’ hard work, would be less avoidable if the poorest and the richest didn’t share the same currency.

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One thing that actually shocked me about Cuba was the (lack of) printed media. There is essentially one national newspaper (‘Granma’) and it is absolutely dire, like a monochrome and cheaply-printed edition of Worker’s Power from 1985. Even that is not very easy to track down. Given that we unfortunately didn’t have access to TV in any of the places we’re staying, it was hard to figure out how state propaganda operates. One taxi driver was kind enough to explain it to me. According to him, political control is partly exercised through the (very) locally-based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. The soldiers we saw knocking on doors around the country may be connected to this system. It apparently involves a lot of gossip and neighbourhood spying, like what Jane Jacobs called ‘eyes on the street’ but with a more sinister edge. Careless talk could mean an uncomfortable visit to or from the police. In the last few years Raúl Castro has unleashed crackdowns on dissent, especially in 2009 when he took power. There are numerous reports of arbitrary detentions and of those who fall out of favour losing their livelihoods.

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Although Mexico and Cuba are obviously very different societies, visiting the latter while living in the former made for some inevitable but hopefully not too misleading comparisons. In Mexico everyone complains, all the time, and quite rightly, about everything connected to the Government and the rateros who run things. There’s an extensive privately-owned media, subject to more brutal forms of censorship. In Cuba I heard no one talk about corruption. That doesn’t mean there is none; in a way Cubans are both better-placed to know what goes on behind the scenes and also less likely to be able to find out. The Internet suggests that there is a lot of bribery and theft (there are lots of references to informal ‘sociolismo’ and ‘amiguismo’), and the fact that the Government has publicly cracked down on it suggests it is an issue, but for all that people we met complained about the difficulties of their daily lives, it wasn’t mentioned.

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I did get the sense that inequality is a growing problem. Most taxi drivers were chatty and open. They are among those to have gained most from the opening up, making up, along with waiters and (apparently, inevitably, depressingly) prostitutes, a brand-new middle class. Both they and the owners of the casas particulares (licensed private guesthouses) we stayed in seemed pleased and grateful for the opportunities they’ve been given. Of course, by definition we had limited chances to talk to people who’ve been left out of the tourist boom. It is also worth mentioning that almost everyone we came into contact with through the tourist industry was white.

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The lack of Internet was something I at first found frustrating and then refreshing. Going online in any form involves buying a card for a certain number of minutes, or at least joining a queue and then doing so. Then there are only certain places where wifi can be accessed. As a result, such places are social spaces where people hang out, talk to friends abroad and use the internet as a public good. The restrictions may be motivated by political control and austerity, but for ten days I enjoyed the novelty of my enforced exile from the online world, obviously another privilege that very few Cubans share. It felt a bit like those resorts where you eat not what you want but what’s good for you, like holidaying in a high-end monastery. The temporary absence of traffic, internet, mass media, and the pressure of advertising felt like a breath of fresh air to me, but I know that for locals it is stifling, a source of immense frustration that in many cases can’t be contained, leading them to try their luck on rickety boats. The numbers leaving the island have increased since early 2013, when exit visas were automatically granted for the first time.

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I did pick up the sense, however, that people in Cuba do still share an ethic. This is not the same as subscribing to a political ideology. The only times I heard socialism mentioned was in museums, on street murals and the couple of times I read the newspaper, and in publicly-broadcast announcements. There does seem to be a patriotic spirit which takes some pride in the achievements of the Revolution. How young people relate to that I have no idea. Graffiti artists and bloggers are among those who have been swept up in Raúl’s crackdowns on dissent. Cubans also face restrictions on movement around the island, a reality probably lost of most of those who, like us, sail round for the sake of air-con, speed and convenience on buses lines which are only available to tourists.

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Not spending all our time looking at our phones means we get talking to other tourists. Some English people we make friends with on the beach are kind enough to pass on a recentish (sympathetic, but not uncritical) biography of Fidel Castro written by a German journalist in 2007. For all the drama of the Revolution itself and the immense sacrifices made to keep it going, with Cuban citizens occasionally removed to an age before the invention of the combustion engine and tales of Havana residents (illegally) farming pigs on their balconies, you’d have to admit that ideological madness was a factor in its survival. At one point in the 1960 Castro declared himself to be against all forms of private trade, right down to the ownership and exploitation of fruit trees. Even the most rabidly pro-Castro leftist would have to wince at some points in the story.

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At the time the book was written the rising star of Cuban politics was Ricardo Alarcón. He was central to the policy of opening up some areas of private trade in the face of absolute economic oblivion. I asked a taxi driver what had become of him since. He’s off the scene, was the reply. Later I learned that he fell out of favour with Raúl and now works is an administrator in a hospital somewhere to the West of Havana, presumably earning the standard $20 a month.

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Not that there’s anything ignoble about working in a hospital, of course. Cuban has some excellent medical services (I didn’t get the chance to find out how the glowing tales we hear abroad are reflect reality). But if those doctors had the chance to go and work abroad, would the system survive? This is just one of very many conundrums which a visit to Cuba opens up. I spent a great deal of my time trying to work out the relationships between embargoes, imports and exports, balance of payments, foreign currency, emigration, remittances…as for whether or not tourism is a basis for development, other Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are not inspiring examples of sustainability or stability. Decent education, and health systems, a lack of widespread violence and corruption all seem unambiguously laudable. The post-Soviet Special Period (or at least the way it’s represented in this excellent-if-a-little-too-effusive documentary) is a genuinely heroic example of popular austerity and enforced environmental sustainability, one which I’ve sometimes thought that (as I’ve argued before) Greece could have learned some lessons from had it not opted to stay inside the EU.

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Given the particular historical moment at which our visit took place, pretty much everyone we talked to told us it might be the last chance to see the country before it ‘changed’. I was and am sceptical of such predictions. The Government is keeping economic and political activity tightly controlled and I didn’t detect any signs of insurrectionary sentiment. Nevertheless, Obama in his last lame duck year did make some very significant changes in the relationship between the countries, and the pressure of big money will probably mean that even the most reactionary government in US history may not be able to reverse the momentum. Maybe they don’t feel the need. After all, Cuban Americans are neither as powerful nor as useful as they were in the 1960s.

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Visiting Cuba taught me a lot. Since it’s one of the those places where it’s hard to relax and play the role of the tourist it problematised my view of the world in a useful way. Emotionally I still feel that the Revolution was worthwhile, and am inclined to believe the sacrifices since then are to some extent justified. It’s easy to forget that in the case of East Germany the Communist regime was partly fueled by revulsion and horror at what had preceded it, and in a similar way I don’t think anyone beyond far-right Republicans is keen to return to the brutal repression of the Machado and Batista years. But then, while browsing in a tourist shop I picked up a book of photographs taken by one of Fidel’s sons of those who visited him over the last few years. There  was El Jefe Maximo with Lula, Chávez and Morales, but also with Assad, Peña Nieto, Mugabe, and Putin. Cuba’s spiritual leader was allowing his country’s legacy of radical self-sacrifice and principled international solidarity to be used as a cheap photo op by any passing tyrant. Irrespective of Cuba’s problematic-but-inevitable past dependence on Stalinist regimes, seeing Castro with Putin and Assad is particularly galling in the context of the current worldwide reactionary resurgence. Today I came across a truly bizarre pro-Assad Facebook group called ‘Love for Syria, Iran, Russia and Cuba’. Is support for Cuba now somehow part of the cause of global neofascism? Such geopolitical shifts require acts of mental contortion that it usually takes a lifetime to master. Perhaps, to paraphrase the documentary-maker Adam Curtis, given the current global political context, relations between the rest of the world and Cuba could not and will not be normalised, but rather hypernormalised. Cuba is not going to become ‘just another’ capitalist country – in a post-Trump world, such a thing no longer exists.

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The Amtrak Trilogy Part 1: Costa Rica to New York

timthumbI yawned deeply amidst the luxury bedding of the boutique hotel on the slopes of the volcano in Costa Rica, and prepared to go back to sleep. It was 5.45am, December 21, 2012. I know the date because I just (now, in 2017) double-checked the details of my flight from San José to JFK. This is something I’d been oddly reluctant to do for the previous ten days, which my then-girlfriend now-wife and I had spent enjoying the resplendent flora, abundant fauna and disappointing food of the ‘Switzerland of Central America’*. Occasionally Chiara had reminded me to look up the time of my return journey, which was different from hers because I’d bought my ticket as a special surprise present for her birthday (er…) and the flight I’d booked was half an hour later and (inevitably) on a different plane. I knew that my flight was in the evening, as was hers to Madrid, but whenever the subject came up I didn’t happen to have my phone to hand, or was too busy looking up names of birds, or just trying hard to ignore a muffled thought I’d locked in a cupboard in my head which was saying something that sounded a bit like, Richard, your flight isn’t in the evening, it’s actually first thing in the morning. So I didn’t get round to checking until once again prompted by her on the morning of the very last day, which we had planned to spend eating a big boutique breakfast followed by a stroll to look at the innards of the big farty mountain with the hard-to-pronounce name. When I looked at the details I “gave a start”. Although I’d never consciously reflected on what that phrase means, I now know it means “to run round the room of a boutique hotel shouting fuck! Fuck! FUCK! and trying to find one’s glasses while also having a shower and packing one’s bag. And apologising. A lot.”

The friendliness of the South African couple who ran the place turned out to be able to withstand having their bedroom door banged on loudly at 5.52am, especially when it became clear that the English guy from Room 4 was too lost in panic to understand the value of money. $100 and forty-five minutes later, I was at the airport.

On the plane I had something of a epistomological crisis. What did I really ‘know’? Could I trust my own ‘knowledge’ of the world? Is our perception of reality based purely on choosing to believe that which suits us and ignore everything else? What other blindspots were there in my worldview? What did this imply about our ‘awareness’ of Climate Change? Like, if I was really as worried about global warming as I told myself I was, what was I doing on yet another plane? And what would my girlfriend’s parents and friends say when they found out how stupid I was? Could I even trust the evidence of my own eyes? The ticket before me, for example, clearly indicated a four-hour gap between my arrival at and departure from JFK. That suggested I could go to the centre of New York and walk around for a bit, right? But who was I to judge such a thing? I would need to ask another human, anyone who wasn’t me, to make the decision for me.

Once deplaned at JFK that’s what I did. I asked a nearby baggage handler to confirm that I could safely set foot in Manhattan or The Bronx or wherever and be back in time for the connection to London. I’d never been to New York before, I explained. She peered at the ticket. No, she said.

Twenty minutes later I was walking down a street in Queens. In New York! It was just like in the films, although not so much ‘Mean Streets’ or ‘Annie: The Musical’, more like ‘Frozen’, ‘My Fingers Just Fucking Fell Off’ or ‘300 Degrees Below Zero’. I reckoned I had enough time to eat some pizza pie, grab a beer in some nondescript bar, shoot dead Donald Trump and maybe track down Thomas Pynchon before heading back to the warmth of the airport.

How does one order pizza in New York? By the slice? How big are the slices? These were the questions I didn’t want to ask as I stood in line. I wanted to feel like I belonged, like a Native New Yorker, but I didn’t, like the song says you should, ‘know the score’. The guys behind the counter seemed to be Middle-Eastern,  but I could hear some proper sweary Italo-American voices coming out of the kitchen. I confidently ordered enough food to feed the entire population of San José for two months and sat down unobtrusively in the corner to peruse some sports magazines which may as well have been written in Patagonian Welsh for all that I could understand of them.

It was technically my first visit to the US but in a sense I’d been there for the previous ten days. Costa Rica sometimes felt a bit like a Disneyland version of Latin America. We’d met so many North Americans even I’d started pronouncing it Coaster Rica. The first was Darylle, whose Airbnb place we stayed at in San José upon arriving. I hadn’t known much about the country we were visiting except that it once had a President who thought it was sometimes okay to spit on people and that it didn’t have an army. (I knew those things because I’d written about them here.) Having breakfast with Darryle was like doing a Master’s in Costa Rican history, society and politics. (It was also the best meal we would have in Costa Rica.) He was an expat lawyer who, after a spell in the Peace Corps in the ’60s, had moved to San José and was very much part of life there. He also sponsored a school in Nepal along with a bewildering list of other laudable activities.

In a blues bar in Quepos we talked to and danced with exiles from Reagan’s America who’d decided to stay for good; just up the road there was a reminder that Costa Rica had been friendly to the US in more disturbing ways, another remnant of the Reagan years in the form of a plane used to transport ‘aid’ to the Contra death squads in neighbouring Nicaragua. Also in Quepos we came across the remains of a banana processing factory – Costa Rica was for almost a hundred years used as a massive banana plantation by US corporations. On the last night, in that boutique guesthouse on the volcano, we had dinner with a New York couple who talked in quiet tones with immense sensitivity and intelligence about the suffering inflicted by Hurricane Sandy and what we as a species could do to prevent it happening elsewhere. In all the personal encounters I recognised and admired that particular openness and readiness for conversation, that effusive volubility that characterises pretty much all the US citizens I’ve ever met. As I munched on my mountain of pizza pie and worried about missing my plane I had the feeling that this was a country where anyone could start to feel like they belonged.

I’d be back.

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* We spent the first couple of days in Cost Ric puzzling over why there were so many Argentinians employed in the tourist industry, but then we realised that Central Americans also go in for that whole voseo thing. Another surprise came at about 4am in a hammock, when I heard this sound from what seemed like less than a metre away. Our favourite animal of the holiday, though, was the local version of the sloth, which apparently only comes down from its tree once every two weeks to take a dump. Pura vida!

French nudists and freak tornados on the Oaxaca Coast

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If you ever want to stay in a discreet nudist hotel, look out on Tripadvisor for codewords like ‘broadminded’, ‘especially for adults’ and ‘not child-friendly’. If you choose judiciously you may, upon walking through the door, be delighted – just like we weren’t – to see two French tourists splayed out in all their flaccid glory in the alfresco bar/reception area, umbrellas in their drinks and gallic pudenda making the most of the warm sea breeze*.

Conversely, if for some bizarre reason you don’t want to stay in such a place, do not choose places which are described as such. I.e: don’t make the same mistake that we did in Zipolite.

Like most tourist hotels and guesthouses we stay at in Mexico, the nudist colony happens to be foreign-owned. In Puerto Escondido itself we stay at a place owned by a Swiss couple, and when we move on to Mazunte the proprietors turn out to be French. The actually quite charming nudist place belongs to an Italian who got halfway to learning Spanish and then got stranded out of his depth. He flounders between the two languages in a way that’s distressing to witness. I would happily dive in and save him, but then he isn’t wearing a swimming costume. Italians love this bit of the Oaxacan coast, because it was the setting (and ‘Puerto Escondido’ was the title) of a 1989 film about a guy from Milan who looks like a young Silvio Berlusconi getting mixed up in drug smuggling, partly because of a series of misunderstandings. It’s therefore possible that the owner of the hotel didn’t know he was starting a naturist colony. It’s also possible I misunderstood the film as I was watching it in Italian and at this point, after three months in Mexico with my Italian wife, Itañol is rapidly becoming my best second language.

dsc_0694It’s certainly warm enough to strip off. We’re at the top of a cliff and the heat and wind are immense. I have to keep covered up, I tell everyone, because I’m scared of getting badly sunburnt. It wouldn’t be the first time. If you really want to know just how painful excessive exposure to the sun can be, go to Tioman Island in Malaysia at the hottest time of the year and spend five straight hours in the sun, dismissing every attempt by your sister to get you to put some suncream on. It hit me three or so days later on the bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur: I was seized by an extremely insistent itching deep beneath my skin all over my chest, back and shoulders. Fearing that I might be having a heart attack brought on by excessive exposure to all the spiciest foods that Asia has to offer, I looked up the health bit of the Lonely Planet and learnt it was probably something called ‘prickly heat’, and that I should apply talcum powder asap. When I got to KL I ran like the wind to the nearest pharmacy, where to my relief I saw that they also sold something called ‘tiger balm’. The word ‘balm’ sounded soothing, like ‘calm’. Or ‘balsam’. Or ‘balsamico’. It doesn’t matter. It made it (at a generous estimate) about thirty times worse, and I spent my entire first, last and only evening in the Malaysian capital showering my torso with cold water. Which, in turned out, also made it worse. Over the next three days I became a gibbering monkey, incapable of more than ten seconds of conversation before I would have to go back to grimacing, scratching and at some points actually screeching. I never got to the point of stealing cameras and throwing my excrement at tourists, but I can tell you it was a pretty close shave.

It was such a traumatic experience that I’ve never made such mistake again, unless you count once in Spain, the first few days in Thailand and pretty much any time I’ve been anywhere really hot where the prospect of getting a fabulous suntan really quickly was just too good to pass up on. That’s why, on the second beachday in Zipolite, having magically overcome my aversion to exposing myself as soon as we left the hotel complex, upon feeling a familiar deeply-buried itch in my chest I run like the wind to the nearest pharmacy, desperately garbling some nonsense about cream-of-after-the-sunshine**. Luckily they do have some, so I down it in a single gulp, give a satisfying burp of relief and go back to working on that tan.

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It’s blisteringly hot but we can’t cool down in the sea. It’s just too wild. It was actually on this beach that the wife of the Mexican-American writer Francisco Goldman was killed by a wave about three years ago, an event he describes in the heartbreaking memoir ‘Say Her Name’. We move on to another village in search of calmer waves, less violent winds and the Perfect Beach Hut, and luckily soon come across a collection of round bungalows on stilts with bamboo walls. This is perfect, I murmur as we lay back on the bed. Sorry? mouths Chiara. I say it again, this time MUCH LOUDER, but it’s no good. It sounds like we’re at the top of Mount Popocatépetl in a Force 12 gale. Using sign language I manage to communicate that we should go downstairs and change our booking from three nights to one. The Parisean owner is thankfully very obliging once I’ve explained that we have to leave earlier than expected to look for my aunt’s favourite pen, which has got blown away PAR LE VENT.

The wind might be annoying to tourists, but it’s being put to good use a little further down the coast. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (quite a challenging name for a Spanish Spanish speaker to pronounce, I’d imagine) hosts most of the country’s wind farms. Although it obviously sounds laudable (and god knows Mexico desperately needs to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels) it’s more problematic than it might first appear. Objections have come from local indigenous people, who say that the resultant encroachment on their land and fishing resources has been accompanied by threats and attempts at bribery. Although in Europe campaigns against wind power are often fuelled and funded by fossil fuel companies or their self-appointed defenders (as this clip from the documentary ‘Age of Stupid’ demonstrates), in Mexico mitigating the effects of the changing climate will be, like so much else, riven by conflict between rapacious commercial interests and people whose land is their only livelihood.

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Not that this level of wind is normal, even for the Oaxacan coast. The following day we witness our, and apparently Mazunte’s, first ever tornado. It twirls inland a mere 200 metres down the beach and whips off a few roofs, but luckily no-one is hurt. For the second time in two months I narrowly avoid becoming a victim of climate change. Over the next few days no boats can go out to sea. On the last night of our holiday there’s a power cut, but the Italian restaurant next door is on hand with candles, lukewarm white wine and burnt pizza served up to a passionate soundtrack of Neapolitan swearwords. We move on to an open-air bar where they’re playing Electrocumbia (my new favourite kind of music). It takes a while to get going but then some French-Canadian crusties turn up with their dogs and take over the dancefloor. Maybe it’s the music, maybe the mezcal cocktails or maybe just the fact of being so far from home, but the dogs just can’t contain their romantic impulses. It adds another dimension to the phrase c’est une vie de chien, but it’s nice to know that it’s not only we humans who do slightly embarrassing things when we’re on holiday.

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* Apparently the French phrase for ‘wedding tackle’ is ‘bijoux de famille’ (lit: family jewels).

** Which I’ve learnt over the years is the product specifically designed for such situations.

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Los Angeles: I kinda like LA

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The film that LA reminds me of most is not ‘Chinatown’, ‘The Long Goodbye’ or ‘Mulholland Drive’, but ‘Tron’*. The absence of a specific centre is nicely disorientating, like a dream of a city with no centre, or with dozens of centres spread out across an undulating grid of (in theory) highspeed highways. Thomas Pynchon called LA “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts”; as it happens I quite like exploring concepts and I find LA surprisingly pleasant to move around. I am, after all, here on holiday. Those who live with its traffic jams and smog would probably question the impression created by the distortions employed here.

I’ve been to a number of cities modelled on or heavily reminiscent of the rhizomatic layout of LA (Johannesburg, Singapore and the Santa Fé part of Mexico City spring to mind), which have tended to be alienating and lacking in identity. But the original has a distinct character in that it’s suffused with images of itself, so I do feel that its history is present. It helps that I’ve just read Mike Davis’ incendiary chronicle of LA’s development, ‘City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles’. Davis writes like an Old Testament prophet, a West Coast Marshall Berman. The book was originally published before the riots of 1992, and mostly details the 20th century battles over local political power, water, and land, all conditioned by race and class. The history of LA is one of small-scale wars over land title and water rights, between newly-established communities and goon squads, vigilantes, landlords, lawyers and developers. One of those developers says in Pynchon’s novel (and subsequent film) ‘Inherent Vice’:

Look around. Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor—all of that’s ours, it’s always been ours. And you, at the end of the day what are you? one more unit in this swarm of transients who come and go without pause in the sunny Southland, eager to be bought off with a car of a certain make, model, and year, a blonde in a bikini, thirty seconds on some excuse for a wave—a chili dog, for Christ’s sake.”

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The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard saw LA as a mirage, a simulacrum, but if it is true that our mental images  of LA screen out the real city at least they’re familiar ones. The city I come from is famous for one film, whereas LA is known for tens of thousands, many of which by no means show the city in its best light. I knew something about the water wars thanks to ‘Chinatown’ and have learnt about LA’s vice, drugs, corruption and racist police brutality from films like ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘LA Confidential’. Mike Davis writes that the film noirs of the 1930s onwards comprised an ‘ideological assault on the American dream’. Raymond Chandler was certainly not the most radical or critical of noir writers but neither ‘The Long Goodbye’ nor ‘The Big Sleep’ paints an idyllic picture of the city. A lot of the early noirs were written by exiled European writers, like Hans Eisler and Erich Maria Remarque, who hated LA’s lack of a civic centre and thought that the city ‘negated every classical value of European urbanity’. Bertolt Brecht simply called it ‘hell’. Nevertheless Theodor Adorno, someone who you might think, given his active antipathy to the culture industry, would have dedicated LA a particularly scathing Tripadvisor review, instead commented: ‘It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that any contemporary consciousness that has not appropriated the American experience, even if in opposition, has something reactionary about it’. And, in a different mood, Brecht once complained that his cottage was ‘too pleasant to work in’ .

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In my case I’m surprised to find that there is, if not a centre, a downtown, and that it’s actually quite likable. The fact that it’s mostly Latino and that everyone speaking Spanish is comforting: given that I’ve just popped up for a week from Mexico City (another city that’s often misrepresented as consisting of nothing but traffic hell but is in reality remarkably walkable), I enjoy the feeling of being doubly foreign. It’s something I regularly experienced going from Portugal to Spain, and also the time when, living in China, I flew to Thailand and bumped into some ‘other’ Chinese people. Downtown LA also has some food markets, tidied-up versions of the ones at home. We visit one of the best bookshops I’ve ever visited (The Last Bookstore), in which I first go a bit mental buying English language novels, and then can’t help but feel a bit disdainful on discovering that they have an entire department dedicated to colouring books for ‘adults’. Out on the streets there are some sights recognisable from Hollywood films depicting a dystopian future. Although we visit on a weekday, most stores are closed and shuttered, there’s evidence of people sleeping in pretty much every doorway and a couple of distressed individuals pushing shopping carts a la ‘The Road’. However, from a Mexico City point of view, it’s all quite familiar – it feels a bit like one of the more abandoned sections of Insurgentes. Down in Chinatown there’s actual streetlife – food stalls, a couple of buskers, and groups of people standing around chatting – and when we pass through the area known as Skid Row people are quite affable, even when they think I’m trying to take photos of them, which I’m not. Much.

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The area where my friends live (Mount Washington) is extremely pleasant; it puts me in mind of the more lightly-gentrified parts of Hackney, like Lower Clapton. Some streets are like Dalston without all the ridiculous new apartment buildings. With its lowlit bars, ethnic restaurants, antique shops and hipsters, there’s a strong sense of quality of life. My friends have been here for about three years. When they arrived, she was pregnant and they were panicking about not having health insurance, but it turned out to their immense relief that the State of California has a scheme which meant they avoided having to pay out over one hundred thousand dollars just for giving birth. Even in terms of healthcare, the United States is a more complex society than I had assumed.

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Another day we head down to Manhattan Beach, where I’m sort of hoping I might bump into Thomas Pynchon, even though I nor anyone else have seen any photos taken of him in the last sixty years and he hasn’t lived here since around the late ‘60s. ‘Inherent Vice’ is set here during that time. It’s a hippy noir whose detective is permanently stoned, which doesn’t help the reader or viewer make much sense of the shaggy dog plot with its dozens of characters. Like most good detective fiction it’s less about who did what to whom than a study of the texture of a particular time and place. There are police buying off hippies to protect millionaire property developers and a shady operation called the Golden Fang which appears to be some sort of mafioso cartel crossed with a secretive corporation. But the novel shows that the LA ruled by such forces is not the only one that might exist or come to exist: the epigraph to the book is the situationist slogan ‘Under the pavement, the beach!’. The ‘60s was a time when another LA, another California, another America threatened to burst through the paving stones of mainstream society. In ‘Vineland’, a previous novel set (conversely) fifteen years later, one whose characters are addled and incapacitated not just by weed fumes but also by cathode rays, Pynchon explores a similar history to Mike Davis’ book: union battles in the film studios, McCarthyism, the FBI’s attempts to control and buy off any burgeoning countercultural forces and impose authoritarian rule. ‘The Crying of Lot 49’, from 1966, was written on the cusp of the hippy years, and has a lot in common with the critique of the situationists of the deadening effects of suburbanisation, bourgeois life and consumer spectacle. Pynchon apparently lived right down next to the beach and spent his time when not writing ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ driving round and discoursing to his hippy companions on LA and its dependence on the war machine. And it’s on the beach that I come across this:

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From the beach we drive up to Malibu to a cheap fish and chip restaurant with ocean views and photos of Barbara Streisand, Rod Stewart and Dylan (Bob) on the wall. I pick up a brochure for local property but the prices are even more absurd than the ones in Dalston**. Although they’re very nice I’d actually pay more money not to have to tell people I live in a place which reminds them of one of the world’s most cloying drinks.

The megarich of LA have other concerns, however. Many of them spend their time worrying about the number of thetans they’ve built up, only to find after several years that the secret truth they were striving for involves some total bollocks about “a galactic overlord by the name of Xenu, a volcano, and souls that attach themselves to newborn babies”***. However, contrary to what a lot of people who spend too much online may tell you, Scientology is not the most dangerous and destructive aspect of the LA lifestyle. In the evening we go to a bar which is showing sport. As the commentators discuss the game a huge Volkswagen logo located right between them takes up roughly 80% of the screen.

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Much more than Scientology or the dreamlife that LA sells us, the cult of the car is the city’s most pernicious export. One consequence of the failure of our species to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is that California is suffering from a massive unprecedented (although not inexplicable) drought. There are notices of water restrictions everywhere. In Beverly Hills the locals have protested, however, explaining that they can’t reduce their water consumption because you know, they just need to consume that much water and anyway they’re rich so fuck off my lawn. You’d have to have the mentality of a cult member to think this kind of attitude has any kind of future.

Some people still see LA as representing the chance of stardom, despite all the cautionary tales told in movies and music from ‘Sunset Boulevard’ to ‘Do you know the way to San José’. In a burger restaurant round the corner from where all the Hollywood Boulevard nonsense is, we meet a young Austrian who’s been here for three years doing an acting course. The fact that she prefers to speak in German with someone (me) who struggles to remember the word for burger suggests the course may not have all she hoped for, although she puts a brave face on it (or at least I think she does, I can’t remember how to save ‘brave’). Subsequently I see several adverts for such courses; it seems that, like the UK, the US also has a burgeoning ripping-off-foreigners-in-return-for-fuck-all disguised as something to do with ‘education’. We also meet a more long-standing immigrant, a Russian taxi-driver who is inspired by our late-night request for somewhere to buy a couple of cans of beer to drive us halfway to Seattle and stock up himself “for the night”. He buys 16 cans, at 2am.

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LA has been called a commodity, a simulation, and a cultural desert, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find (pace Gertrude Stein on Oakland) that there is in fact a ‘there’ there. I can certainly see the appeal of living in LA, particularly up in the hills. Some parts of the city looks curiously like an area of my hometown, Sheffield. The ‘70s-built council housing in Gleadless Valley imitated Californian design to great effect. (If anyone thinks that this is nonsense please read this to verify). The wonderful place where my friends live, on the slopes of Mount Washington with a sweeping view across the train tracks towards downtown, puts me in mind of the 1970s, the LA of Tom Waits and Robert Altman’s version of ‘The Long Goodbye’, which are the sounds and images I most cherish from the city.

Nevertheless, the idealised LA way of life is one that doesn’t export well. Devoid of historical content and bereft of Los Angeles’ rich and complex set of visual associations, it produces bland suburbanisation, something far closer to what Baudrillard was talking about. In a word: Singaporisation. I find it hard to see the appeal of Dubai  to anyone who has an alternative****. Such places seem to me to be much better simulations of dystopia, rendered worlds with no civic or public life, no libraries or bookshops or public squares or walkable streets. A bland, privatised architects model, an outdoor shopping mall where the only game to play is pretend-you’re-a-millionaire. At least LA has a history: one of desert, drought, corruption, rats in palm trees, film noir and race wars. It is a gigantic incoherent confluence of human ambition, creativity and destruction. The brightness and the darkness. It’s thanks to the imaginations of filmmakers and writers that Los Angeles exists in a way that many cities that imitate its form don’t.

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* The original version, not the remake by Tim Burton or whoever.

** Nobody from London will believe this possible.

*** This is what it says in this South Park episode, accompanied by the words ‘This is what Scientologists actually believe’. I sometimes think of writing something similar on this blog just in case people think I’m doing this for a laugh.

**** Not that Dubai is lacking in intrigue. I think you’d have to be very brave to live there and go looking for it. One of my friends in LA wrote this excellent novel about oil business shenanigans.