Beijing, 13 January 2013

They say that those of us who were alive at the time remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard about Jack Kennedy’s assassination. That is certainly true for me; I was in bed in my dormitory at boarding school with lights out when one of the older boys burst in announcing the news. The same holds for me when it comes to the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. I had recently come back from lunch and was working without much enthusiasm on a document when a colleague came running down the hall shouting out the news to all of us.

Since then, every time my wife and I go back to New York, we always take a trip down to ground zero, to see how things have changed. So it was this time that on the last day of our latest stay in New York, after an earlier false start (we hadn’t understood that you need to book on-line), my wife and I managed to visit the 9/11 Memorial. After collecting the tickets, finding the entrance, threading our way through an active construction site, past numerous security checks – more numerous than at an airport – we finally arrived in the area of the memorial itself.

It is a somberly moving monument. First, there is the location of the two square fountains that make up the design. They have been inserted into the footprints of the two towers, thus serving as an eternal reminder of the latter’s disappearance.

aerial view-3

Then there is the design of the fountains. The water doesn’t spray up in noisy, joyous jets as is normally the case for fountains, but instead falls from the rims of the fountains, continuous lines of tears, into the dark pool far below

memorial 004

from where it disappears down into a central, apparently bottomless void, the hole left in the city’s and the in country’s heart.

memorial 006

And all around the fountains’ rims, from where the water-tears flow, are inscribed the names of those who died in the attack on the towers, as well as in the attack on the Pentagon and in the airplanes that were used as the weapons.

memorial 007

Truly moving indeed.

memorial 010


Aerial view: http://i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2011/09/10/rmitchell911memorial_480x360.png

other pictures: mine


Beijing, 12 January 2013

We arrived back in Beijing a few hours ago and found ourselves landing in a real pea soup – perhaps carrot soup would be more appropriate since the colour was a dull red; dust from the Gobi desert had blown in. Visibility was really very bad; my wife and I thanked God and radar for having got the plane down safely. As I write, the sun, which was glaring weakly through the fog when we arrived, has disappeared completely to leave behind a grey miasma.


Electronic visibility seems just as bad. Our internet connection is still acting up; it’s very difficult to get through the Great Firewall that surrounds China.


It started getting bad a month or so before the 18th Congress of the Communist Party. Everyone in the expat community agreed that the Powers that Be were tightening their grip on the electronic chatter to make sure that nothing embarrassing or destabilizing got out (the Bo Xilai case was uppermost in everyone’s minds). Everyone also agreed that surely they would relax their grip after the Party Congress and things would go back to where they were (I won’t say normal). But that didn’t happen. So now the expats are saying that internet will be controlled until March when the new leadership takes over, and then surely after that they will relax their grip.

I’m not so sure. Control is a drug; once you get a taste for it, you can’t give up, you want more. I’m afraid that my little tunnels through the Great Firewall will all be blocked up and that my voice will no longer get through to the outside world. These last few weeks in New York have given me a heady taste of what freedom of speech can be like. I published my posts and researched my materials on the internet with ease and speed, without the constant worry that I would lose the connection and everything would crash.

I don’t want to lose my voice. Paraphrasing Langston Hughes, the African American poet, “now do I wonder at this thing, that I am old but I can sing”.  I want to keep singing, to keep sending out my little messages in their bottles.

message in a bottle

air pollution Beijing: http://rt.com/files/news/china-pollution-851/people-walk-heavily-hazy.jpg (Reuters / Jason Lee)
cartoon great firewall: http://www.thetelecomblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Great-Firewall2.jpg
message in a bottle: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_-C_ejcKBFWo/TEnq5dYUa3I/AAAAAAAAJbc/DI29YiFyC-Q/s1600/MIAB.jpg


New York, 7 January 2013

Several years ago, I had to be in New York for a period of two weeks to cover an international meeting. It was early May, a good time to be in the city. The weather is normally nice and it’s not too hot yet. The first morning, I left early to give myself plenty of time to deal with the wearisome entry procedures. My walk to the meeting took me along 47th Street. As I was walking between First and Second Avenues, I spied to my left the entrance to a little garden, open to the public.

mary's garden-2

Intrigued, I checked my watch and decided I had sufficient time to take a quick look. What I found was achingly lovely: a little pool with the quiet gurgle of a fountain to the side, a small bridge spanning the pool

mary's garden-1

leading to three benches, and planted beds around the pool. Most magnificent of all, arching over the whole, were three dogwood trees. They were in full bloom, and the soft whiteness of their flowers, tinged with spring green, permeated the whole space. I was left without breath and sat for five minutes to absorb it all. Of a sudden, I started out of my reverie, checked my watch again, and hurried off to my meeting.

The garden must be little known, because I was unable to find any photos of it on the web other than the two above. So I later sent my daughter to take photos when the dogwood trees were in flower. Here is a sample.




I went back several times during the next two weeks, to reflect and to rest, watching the dogwood flowers begin to fade. I learned the garden’s name – St. Mary’s garden – and that it was attached to the small church next door, the Church of the Holy Family. I brought my wife there when she joined me in the second week. We sat on one of the benches and held hands.

When yesterday I found myself by chance close by, I could not resist visiting the garden again. Given the season, it was drearer.

garden-winter 002

But it still had a dreamy quiet; the fountain gurgled softly, and a bird sang in the dogwood trees. As I sat there, a fragment of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary floated up out of my boyhood memories, heard murmured by old women in dark, empty churches at the time of the Angelus:

Mystical rose,
Tower of David,
Tower of ivory,
House of gold,
Ark of the covenant,
Gate of heaven,
Morning star,
Health of the sick,
Refuge of sinners,
Comforter of the afflicted …

And then another memory fragment floated to my the surface of my mind, lines from the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday:

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still …

And I sat still.

Mary’s garden-1: http://www.dkimages.com/discover/previews/739/151269.JPG
Mary’s garden-2: http://forgotten-ny.com/wp-content/gallery/streetscenes_chip_07/11-holyfamily-grotto.jpg
Dogwood in bloom-1: my daughter
Dogwood in bloom-2: my daughter
Dogwood petals in the pool: my daughter
garden in winter: my picture


New York, 4 January 2013

Like I said in an earlier posting it’s great to be with the kids, and Manhattan is certainly a fun place to ring in the new year, but it has meant that we haven’t followed our usual pattern of spending Christmas and New Year in Italy. Normally, we would all congregate in Milan, pass Christmas there, and then head for Liguria. Milan is quite depressing at year-end; it’s grey and cold and wet, and everyone’s left for somewhere else. But Liguria, especially our little bit of it just south of Genova, is lovely. The crowds of beach tourists have vanished, but the days are still mostly sunny, the temperature is mild, the sea is blue

coast and sky-1

the bougainvillea is still flowering


the church’s campanile is awash in festive colours


… It’s a corner of paradise.

When we get off the bus, our routine is always the same. We walk up to the apartment, drop off the bags, and then head down to the village centre for dinner. There is a restaurant there that we always go to, where we order its specialty: focaccia al formaggio. For the uninitiated, this is a mass of melted soft cheese held very slightly between two very thin strips of flatbread.


The cheese is held so slightly by the flatbread that it is an art to pick up a piece and bring it to one’s mouth without half the cheese ending up on your lap. For the first couple of times, it’s safer to use a knife and fork.

Described like this, it doesn’t sound like much, but I can assure you that focaccia al formaggio is absolutely delicious, so famous now in Europe that the local authorities have applied for, and received, the EU certification of Protected Designation of Origin; in other words, no-one else, anywhere, can claim to make focaccia al formaggio.

The key to a good focaccia al formaggio is of course the cheese. Originally, the locals used a highly local cheese, prescinsêua (as it is known in Genoese dialect).

Unfortunately, high demand for the focaccia over the last several decades has outstripped the meagre supply of this cheese. Local restaurateurs have therefore switched to stracchino, a very similar cheese from Lombardy.

Luckily, it was generally agreed that stracchino makes an even better focaccia. However, its use is currently creating a bit of a crisis. The obtention of the EU certificate was seen as vital to protecting the brand; however, the certificate requires the use of local ingredients, and as any Italian will tell you a Lombard cheese is definitely not local to Liguria. So makers of focaccia al formaggio are now switching to crescenza, a cheese made in a valley behind Genova.

But aficionados are whispering that the resulting focaccia is not so good. We await the unfolding of this drama with baited breath.

Feeling a little homesick, we tried to make focaccia al formaggio for the first time ever over the weekend.  Our daughter did a massive search for stracchino and eventually tracked some down in a shop in the upper east seventies. We thought we were home and dry. That’s when we discovered that how you make the flatbread is equally important. It must be very thin; ours wasn’t thin enough and we ended up with a strange sandwich of two biscuits with clumps of unmelted stracchino in between. We are also still discussing if the oven wasn’t hot enough.

Hope springs eternal. We will try again, but not any time soon. Perhaps we will be back in Italy next year and can simply eat it as we always have, at our favourite restaurant in Liguria.

Coast and sky: http://www.liguriawebtv.it/wp-content/uploads/portofino1.jpg
Bougainvillea: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/15661912.jpg
Campanile: http://www.google.it/imgres?hl=it&tbo=d&biw=1280&bih=658&tbm=isch&tbnid=flpKDAD7z-P6TM:&imgrefurl=http://www.panoramio.com/user/741959/tags/campanili&docid=iq3aXsUhbs36HM&imgurl=http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/small/7332810.jpg&w=180&h=240&ei=DyHmUIODCqXv0QHUo4DwCw&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=1079&vpy=127&dur=33&hovh=192&hovw=144&tx=130&ty=122&sig=104429032764427195966&page=1&tbnh=138&tbnw=107&start=0&ndsp=22&ved=1t:429,r:6,s:0,i:103
Focaccia col formaggio: http://www.ansa.it/webimages/foto_large/2012/3/15/1331830684301_Focacciadirecco.jpg
prescinsêua: https://www.facarospauls.com/apps/italian-food-decoder/11169/prescinseua
stracchino: http://www.carionifood.com/it/cat0_17049_16985/formaggi/formaggi-senza-lattosio/p530877-stracchino-senza-lattosio.php
crescenza: http://www.misya.info/ingrediente/crescenza
Edo Bar: https://www.tripadvisor.it/Restaurant_Review-g1807548-d1173493-Reviews-Edobar-Sori_Italian_Riviera_Liguria.html


New York, 2 January 2013

Down at the end of my French grandmother’s property ran a little train, the Micheline we called it. It was a rinky-dink train, one carriage (on rare occasions two), which chugged along at a venerable speed across the countryside from one market town to another, winding its way through vineyards and meadows, stopping at toy-town stations where stationmasters with moustaches, who smoked filterless gauloises and no doubt drank un petit rouge corsé in evenings, would agitate green flags and blow shrill whistles to let the Micheline continue on. This photo captures the rural idyll nicely.


I used to accompany my grandmother on her visits to town. We would walk down a long alley flanked first by peach and apple trees and then by black locusts, down to the end of the property where there was a big iron gate, which swung ponderously open; from there, it was a short five-minute walk to the station. In came the Micheline


I would help my grandmother in, the stationmaster would agitate his flag and blow his whistle, and off we went.

My mother used to tell me that during the Second World War, people were sent to my grandmother by the French Resistance for her to hide for a while; they would quietly slip in with the Micheline. My memory is instead of two old ladies, two sisters, Tante Chlothilde and Tante Marcelle, coming to visit via the train. They were first cousins to my grandmother. Both of them being widows, they always wore black. We would first see the Micheline chug by, then some ten minutes later two black silhouettes would be sighted slowly walking up the long alley. My grandmother would then walk down to greet them, speaking very loudly because one of the sisters was as deaf as a post.

Well, things changed. The road network got better, buses took over, and the line was finally closed down. I suppose the Michelines were retired like this one was


The rails were pulled up, and the weeds took over.

After a long period of neglect, the municipalities got their collective acts together and turned the railway line into a “Green Way”, for people to walk and cycle along. So now we have a quiet, carless, path that allows us to enjoy some of the most beautiful countryside on Earth (I admit, I’m biased).



All of this came back to me yesterday while my wife and I strolled along the High Line in Manhattan. We are talking of a very different context – urban rather than rural, large-scale rather than small-scale – but the historical trajectory is the same: a rail line that was once a vital artery of the city



falls victim to roads and trucks and is finally abandoned. It becomes derelict, overgrown by weeds


and is threatened with demolition. But good sense eventually prevails and the elevated line is turned into an elevated garden.







Micheline-1: http://www.google.fr/imgres?q=micheline+train&num=10&hl=fr&tbo=d&biw=1280&bih=683&tbm=isch&tbnid=QbpsYHDZWoAGgM:&imgrefurl=http://www.worldofstock.com/stock-photos/france-ardeche-mirabel-village-surroundings-local-micheline/TRT1500&docid=307ZNJAoHh-JTM&imgurl=http://www.worldofstock.com/slides/TRT1500.jpg&w=500&h=332&ei=hIXjUMDvFuXQ0wGh84HQCg&zoom=1&iact=rc&dur=684&sig=113446295457090783361&page=1&tbnh=140&tbnw=202&start=0&ndsp=22&ved=1t:429,r:10,s:0,i:118&tx=96&ty=67

Micheline-2: http://c1.img.v4.skyrock.net/1729/16641729/pics/3080416001_1_3_WEG0CElV.jpg

Micheline-3: Micheline-3: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-C8L1231bJ-o/TbhQHR6dc_I/AAAAAAAAEAQ/FvpTQts0R0I/s1600/micheline01-1.jpg

Green Way-1: http://www.sortiramacon.com/media/news/voie-verte-velo.jpg

Green Way-2: http://www.velo-ravel.net/2009/2009-08-17_Bourgogne_sud_files/image020.jpg

High line 1-historical: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-X8IIsMIF7GY/TmlooRzMZ9I/AAAAAAAAF9M/_PpGNN3xJEU/s400/Highline_train.jpg

High line 2-historical: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-0FEWcWopww8/TmlooMh8vlI/AAAAAAAAF9E/SuXL4wcu6To/s400/HIghline_historical.jpg

High line derelict: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-iD76YXAA-Uw/TffNNuz4gXI/AAAAAAAAAYU/KWHnUGbYjPU/s1600/High+Line+2.jpg

High line 1: http://www.asla.org/sustainablelandscapes/images/highline/Highline_6.jpg

High line 2: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-usnFjgnfQc4/TffNIgAV6xI/AAAAAAAAAYQ/XMQA0bZJAb4/s1600/High+Line.jpg

High line 3: http://www3.pictures.gi.zimbio.com/New+York+New+High+Line+Park+Opens+Public+3B45D1SYEJcl.jpg

High line 4: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-WbybGegkYX0/Tmlon5yO-1I/AAAAAAAAF88/LyBQFC8kMpo/s1600/Highline_above.jpg


New York, 1 January 2013

My last post has brought back a memory from when I was a teenager. I went to a boarding school that was located some twenty miles from the nearest major train station, so at the beginning and end of each term buses would bring us to and from the station. The bus ride back to school at the beginning of the term was a staid affair, everyone quietly talking or just meditating. The bus ride back home at the end of term was an altogether more riotous event. Bawdy rugby songs were sung at high volume, starting from the back of the bus where the bad boys sat, and what in a different era were called “off-colour” jokes were retold loudly and with relish. This album cover conveys the general idea, although we did keep our clothes on.

rugby songs

One element of the journey home was that we would all wear the loudest possible ties. I should explain that while we did not wear uniforms as such at our school, sports jackets were de rigeur along with a tie. Not just any old tie; a black tie. All of us, all term, wore a black tie.


The only exceptions were school and house monitors as well as the sporty types who won their cricket, rugby or other colours for exceptional gamesmanship.  We had many theories about why we all had to wear ties of such a lugubrious colour; the one I remember has to do with commemorating the deaths of several boys in a fire decades ago in one of the school houses (no girls; this was a boys’ school).

Whatever the reason, on the last day of term we threw off that horrible black tie and marched onto the bus each with a tie louder and – given the times – more psychedelic than the last. These photos give an idea of the sudden blast of colour we offered each other:



Getting onto the bus was to take part in a fashion cat walk, with comments about each tie and loud cheers for the brightest. We all came back to school with a secret hoard of bright ties, from which we selected one to parade that last morning in front of our peers. And then off we went, singing our bawdy rugby songs.

What happened to my psychedelic ties? Gone, I think, with other mementos of my youth when my sister, tired of seeing me not collect that suitcase which I had asked her to store in her attic, threw it and its contents out.

suitcase in trash

So goes life.

Rugby songs album: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3126/3086393712_13bffb7baa.jpg
Black-tie: http://100days100ties.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/black-tie.jpg
Sixties-ties-1: http://img.ehowcdn.com/article-new/ehow/images/a06/q3/of/men_s-fashion-60s-1.1-800×800.jpg
Sixties-ties-2: http://t1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSLL3ymfg76pRMQkN79f7YMTuTYx8Ftz4I_Srr46O7eIhIHs48IAxr5HDgs
Suitcase in a trash can: http://hilariousnyc.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Suitcase-Trash-Can.jpg