Beijing, 24 November 2013

Back in May, I closed my post Dream Journey: Part I in Aquileia, in North-Eastern Italy. I said then that my wife and I would be continuing the journey.  But somehow, I got distracted by other things.  Now the days are shortening and the cold is beginning to bite …

No matter, let’s continue! Even in late Autumn the Mediterranean is beautiful. But we won’t be following my original plan for the second leg of the trip, which was to drive in our open-topped MG from Aquileia to Istanbul through the Balkans following the trace of the old Roman roads Via Gemina and Via Militaris. It’s too cold for that now.  Instead, we’ll backtrack to Venice airport, drop off the MG in the airport’s parking lot for the next dream travelers to pick up, and take a plane to Istanbul.

No sooner said than done. With a click of the mouse we have arrived in Istanbul!

Wonderful city, Istanbul. Since time immemorial, a place of passage and trade between Asia to the east and Europe to the west, between the Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean Sea the south. Where Jason and the Argonauts passed on their way north to find the golden fleece. Where the Persian King Darius I crossed his troops to chase after and subdue the pesky Scythian horsemen to the north. Where, more prosaically, grain ships from the northern shores of the Black Sea passed on their way south to bring their cargoes to the Greek city states and later to Rome.  Chosen by Constantine the Great as the seat of his new capital of the Roman Empire. Later, capital only of the Eastern Roman Empire when the Empire’s western portion disintegrated and disappeared, and later still of the renamed Byzantine Empire. Conquered one thousand two hundred years later by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, to become the capital of the Ottoman Empire, a role it played for another five hundred years. Set aside by Kemal Atatürk as capital of the new Turkey in favour of Ankara. In the last several decades, swollen to bursting by millions of impoverished migrants from Turkey’s eastern provinces. But still a lovely, vibrant city.

In this dream trip of mine my wife and I are only here to visit the city’s early christian mosaics, so we’ll ignore the Islamic splendours of the city …

blue mosque Istanbul

the breathtaking views of the Bosphorus …

bosphorus views

the fun of the covered spice bazaar …

spice bazaar istanbul

the culinary delights of its restaurants …

restaurants Istanbul

No, we tell the taxi driver instead to take us straight to Hagia Sophia.

Hagia_Sophia external

The edifice started life as the Basilica of Holy Wisdom in 537, was turned into a mosque when the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, and finally became a museum in 1935. Other than the four slim minarets, it has remained pretty much the same on the outside over the last millennium and a half. The inside has changed more as the obvious signs of its Christian function were whitewashed over or removed and replaced with Muslim symbols. This process of islamicization, together with those natural processes linked to the passage of time – rot, mould, water ingress, along with an earthquake or two – has meant that most of the glittering mosaics which covered every inch of the vast interior have disappeared.


We are left with a few modest shards tucked away in various corners of the interior:

A gentle Madonna in the apse, but so high, so remote:

hagia sophia-1-apse

A stern Christ between Mary and John the Baptist:

hagia sophia-7-deesis

The Emperors Justinian and Constantine humbly offering the Madonna the basilica and the city:

hagia sophia-6-justinian and constantine

The Emperor Comnenus and Empress Irene with the Madonna:

hagia sophia-5-comnenus and irene

The Emperor Constantine Monomacchus and the Empress Zoe with the Christ:

Mosaïque de l'impératrice Zoé, Sainte-Sophie (Istanbul, Turquie)

The Emperor Leo VI prostrate at the feet of the Christ:

hagia sophia-4-Leo VI

And lastly, uncovered just a few years ago, a seraph:

hagia sophia-8-seraphim

(As I look more closely at his face

hagia sophia-9-seraphim-detail

I cannot escape the notion that he is saying, “get me out of this stuff!”)

I cannot avoid a certain melancholy as I survey what is left and think of what it must have been. I am reminded of a story from the time of the Ottomans’ conquest of the city. It is said that when Mehmed II wandered around the Imperial palace originally built by Constantine, now lying ruined and abandoned, he murmured some lines from a famous Persian poet:
“The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars,
An owl hoots in the towers of Afrasiyab”.

Still in a state of melancholy, I click the mouse, and my wife and I are now visiting another, much smaller, church in Istanbul, Kariye Camii (the Church of the Holy Saviour). It still has extensive mosaics, executed in early 1300s. We are entering the twilight age of mosaics; in fact, the church also has extensive frescoes, the medium which eventually triumphed over mosaics. Here are photos of some of the mosaics.
Up in its two small domes:

kariye camii-6-christ cupola

kariye camii-5-virgin genealogy

which give us an idea of what the dome of Hagia Sophia must have looked like.

Scenes of Christ’s Ministry:

kariye camii-7-christs ministry

Scenes from the life of the Virgin:

kariye camii-3-paying tax

And finally the donor, the powerful Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites, humbly offering his church to Christ:


(I like the hat!)

The church also has some wonderful frescoes. This one is my favourite, a fresco of the Resurrection

kariye camii-2-fresco

Such a dynamic Christ! So different from the stiff, awkward, reserved Christs of this period’s mosaics.

We come out into sunlight of the noisy street outside. It’s time to move on.  The next leg of the journey will be in Greece.


Blue Mosque: http://www.beautifulmosque.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Sultan-Ahmed-Mosque-in-Istanbul-Turkey-1.jpg
Bosphorus views: http://www.wallpapersgalaxy.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/suleiman-mosque-in-istanbul-turkey-view-to-bosphorus.jpg
Spice bazaar Istanbul: http://images.fxcuisine.com/blogimages/turkey/istanbul/egyptian-spice-bazar/istanbul-egyptian-bazar-02-1000.jpg
Restaurant Istanbul: http://thumbs.ifood.tv/files/images/editor/images/top%20restaurants%20in%20Istanbul.jpg
Hagia Sophia-exterior: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Hagia_Sophia_Mars_2013.jpg
Hagia Sophia-interior: http://powertripberkeley.com/wp-content/uploads/hagia-sophia-wallpaperhagia-sophia-interior-by–thesolitary-on-deviantart-cjcwsxkd.jpg
Hagia Sophia-apse: http://www.mosaicartsource.com/Assets/html/artists/lilian/mosaic_hagia_sophia.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Deesis: http://www.gradale.com/Media/Deesis.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Justinian and Constantine: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Istanbul.Hagia_Sophia075.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Comnenus and Irene: http://www.turkey4travel.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/hagia-sofia-mosaic.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Zoe and Constantine Monomacchus: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/Empress_Zoe_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Leo VI: http://www.cambridge2000.com/gallery/images/P33112366e.jpg
Hagia Sophia-seraph: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4089/4973697085_028b4ed969.jpg
Hagia Sophia-seraph-detail: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01725/mysteries-2509_1725247c.jpg
Kariye Camii-Christ in the cupola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2a/Chora_Christ_south_coupole.jpg/800px-Chora_Christ_south_coupole.jpg
Kariye Camii-Virgin Mary in the cupola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/00/HSX_Mary_genealogy.jpg/800px-HSX_Mary_genealogy.jpg
Kariye Camii-Christ’s Ministry: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8069/8213661931_5653c8fd48_o.jpg
Kariye Camii-paying tax: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Meister_der_Kahriye-Cami-Kirche_in_Istanbul_005.jpg
Kariye Camii-theodore metochites: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-kariye-chora-pictures/dedication-theodore-metochites-ccc-access-denied.jpg
Kairye Camii-fresco resurrection: http://www.vikiturkey.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/chora-museum.jpg


Beijing, 22 November 2013

There is a joke that northern Chinese crack about their cousins in the south, to the effect that southerners eat everything on four legs except the table they are sitting at. When they tell this joke to foreigners they will helpfully go on to explain that southerners eat absolutely everything. I think many foreigners are bemused by this distinction which northerners make between themselves and their southern cousins, since it seems to most of us that northerners will also eat everything. I mean, which tourist in Beijing has not visited the food night market in Wanfujing road and seen scorpions and other insects being offered as delicacies to nibble?

scorpions on wanfujing road

And what about the disgusting stinky tofu which all Chinese – northerners and southerners alike – delight to eat?

eating stinky tofu-3

Looking beyond these extremes of eating behaviour, it is true to say that the Chinese have a very deep and intense relationship with food. I have been told that this is because hunger and starvation is still a recent experience for many. One of my staff, for instance, who is my age, once told me that her sister, who is five-six years younger than her, is smaller because she was born in a time of intense hunger. I don’t disagree with this; hunger can certainly make you focus obsessively on food. Nevertheless, I think the Chinese’s intense love of food goes beyond lingering memories of hungry times; they have an existential relationship with their food. Whenever I see a group of Chinese about to sit down to eat, they remind me of a group of Englishmen about to enter a pub. They suddenly all brighten up, start talking and laughing loudly, and generally behave as if this was the most wonderful moment of their lives.

I was reminded of all this recently when my wife and I were nosing around a Chinese chemist (drug store to my North American friends), looking at the weird and wonderful things which the Chinese are willing to eat or drink for their supposed medicinal value.


As I poked around in the various cases, I stumbled across this.


It was marked as “chuan bei”.  After some research, I discovered that these odd things were the bulbs of a species of fritillary, fritillaria cirrhosa. The Chinese take it as a cough medicine, along with “zhe bei”, the bulbs of another species of fritillary, fritillaria verticillata.

Some of you may be asking yourselves what a fritillary is. It’s a flower, a beautiful bell-shaped flower. The commonest European variety is the snake’s head,  fritillaria meleagris

snakes head fritillary

The common name probably derives from the flower’s somewhat snakelike appearance when it nods in the wind on its long stem.

As for the name fritillary, it derives from the Latin term for a dice-box (fritillus), probably because of the checkered pattern on the petals of many of the fritillary species.


I must confess that I’ve never seen the snake’s head in the flesh. I first came across it in a book with absolutely lovely photos; the book is now slumbering along with all of my other books in a storage depot in Vienna. There was a photo of snake’s head fritillaries in the meadow of Magdalen College, Oxford. The following picture is not as beautiful but it does give a sense of how wonderful that meadow must be when the snake’s heads are in bloom.

magdalen meadow

A visit to Magdalen meadow is one of the things on my bucket list, along with visits to other ancient hay meadows in England which have retained their annual crop of snake’s heads: Fox Fritillary Meadow:

Fox Fritillary meadow

North Meadow in Crickdale:


and no doubt others. I also have to travel to Sweden to see it there:


as well as to the high Alpine meadows to see a cousin, the meleagride alpino, or fritillaria tubiformis:

fritillaries in the alps

I have to hurry up. There was a time when snake’s heads were plentiful in the UK. They grow best in heavy, marshy soils, the same soils which make the best hay meadows. When we rode horses, hay was a valuable commodity and hay meadows – and the snake’s heads – were to be found everywhere. But cars came, horses disappeared, and then – the final blow – during World War II many of the meadows were ploughed under for food production. Now the flower is endangered.

So as I sit here and look at these beautiful flowers and mourn their passing glory, I see a fundamental difference between me and the Chinese. I say “how beautiful!”, they say “what’s it taste like?”


scorpions on Wanfujing Road: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/72103761.jpg [in http://www.panoramio.com/photo/72103761%5D
Eating stinky tofu: http://aningredientaday.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/stinky.jpg
Chinese medicine: http://www.funcage.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Snake-Wine.jpg [in http://www.funcage.com/blog/8-strange-foods-that-will-make-you-cringe/%5D
Chuan Bei Mu bulbs: http://www.ioffer.com/img/item/198/952/678/2lb-bulbus-fritillariae-cirrhosae-chuan-bei-mu-ceba5.jpg [in http://www.ioffer.com/i/2lb-bulbus-fritillariae-cirrhosae-chuan-bei-mu-198952678%5D
Snakes head fritillary: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/60/Fritillaria_meleagris_MichaD.jpg/512px-Fritillaria_meleagris_MichaD.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F._meleagris%5D
Fritullus: https://www.uni-erfurt.de/imgs/7944 [in https://www.uni-erfurt.de/max-weber-kolleg/personen/wolfgangspickermann/roemische-inschriften-in-germanien/kleininschriften/%5D
Magdalen meadow: http://www.gardenista.com/files/styles/733_0s/public/fields/magdalen%20meadow%20by%20Andrew%20Johnson.jpg [in http://www.gardenista.com/posts/how-to-make-a-fritillary-meadow%5D
Fox fritillary meadow: http://squeezyboy.blogs.com/photos/fox_fritillary_meadow/framsden_fritilliary_meadow_009.jpg [in http://squeezyboy.blogs.com/photos/fox_fritillary_meadow/framsden_fritilliary_meadow_009.html%5D
North Meadow Crickdale: http://www7.clikpic.com/RobertHarvey/images/UK11-176_Snakes_head_fritillaries_Fritillaria_meleagris_North_Meadow_Cricklade_Wiltshire.jpg [in http://www.robert-harvey.co.uk/articles_177296.html%5D
Kungsängslilja: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b2/Sandemar_f%C3%A5gelseservat_2012a.jpg/600px-Sandemar_f%C3%A5gelseservat_2012a.jpg [in http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kungs%C3%A4ngslilja%5D
Fritillaries in the Alps: http://www.actaplantarum.org/floraitaliae/download/file.php?id=67858 [in http://www.actaplantarum.org/floraitaliae/viewtopic.php?t=2255%5D


Beijing, 17 November 2013

When I was young, sticking-out ears were considered ugly and the sign of probable dumbness. This is no doubt why, for instance, Mad Magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Neumann, has ears which stick out


and why two of the the Pieds Nickelés, the grubby lumpenproletariat heroes of a French cartoon series which was still quite popular when I was young, also had had ears which stuck out.

Pieds Nickeles

Add to this the general connection between boxers (“thick between the ears”) and prominent cauliflower ears, for instance this boxer from 1914

boxer Fred Welsh 1914

or this one from Ancient Greece some time in the first centuries BC

boxer ancient greek

and the reader can appreciate that prominent ears were not associated with the finer things of life.

This bad press for protruding ears was bad news for me. As a youngster, my ears had an unfortunate tendency to jut out, which led my mother from time to time to take my chin in her hand, pass an eye over my ears, and talk meditatively about having them pinned back. As you can appreciate, this early threat of ending up under the surgical knife has made me remember these episodes quite keenly and to be generally sensitive to the positioning of people’s ears on their heads. Prominent ears were bad enough for boys. They were even more problematic for girls. There was in my youth a certain tolerance for clumsy, oafish boys – that was par for the course – but girls were meant to be dainty and refined. So sticking-out ears on a girl was a disaster. Luckily my wife’s ears were perfectly aligned to her head, but she remembers there being general talk in her youth about using plasters to “train” protruding ears back against the head (rather as one trains flowers in the garden to grow in a certain direction by tying them to sticks).

All this being said, I never actually met a girl – or boy, for that matter – who had their ears pinned back (or who admitted to it). Nevertheless, it is a fact that as I grew up (and mercifully my ears repositioned themselves correctly against my head) I remember no-one of my generation with protruding ears. Somehow, sticking-out ears disappeared, or at least diminished.

So readers will understand that it was with some astonishment that I and my wife discovered that protruding – sometimes very protruding – ears are quite common in China, especially, so it seems to me, among women. Here is a typical example of what I mean: a young woman photographed at an automobile show, where women are meant to sell cars by being pretty, with obviously protruding ears.

chinese ears-1

I cannot imagine any automobile house in Europe hiring a woman with such prominent ears to sell its cars.

And here is a picture of an air hostess, a job which in China still connotes prettiness and femininity. I surreptitiously took this photo on a recent flight while the young lady wasn’t looking.

ears on plane 001

I cannot imagine an air hostess 10-15 years ago in Europe (when good looks were still considered a must for air hostesses) ever having ears sticking out like that.

But perhaps I’m showing a cultural arrogance here, thinking it’s our way or no way. Perhaps the Chinese don’t attribute the same negative connotations to protruding ears that we do in Europe. In a completely unscientific survey, I studied photos of some of the more glamorous Chinese women – actresses, singers and suchlike – to test the following theory: if the Chinese do not think protruding ears are a big deal, then at least some of these women will have ears that stick out. I believe that the following photos prove my theory correct:

The actress Zhang Ziyi

actress Zhang Ziyi

The actress Yang Mi

actress Yang Mi

The actress Lin Chiling

actress Lin Chiling

Their ears don’t stick out as much as some women’s ears we’ve seen here, but in my non-professional opinion they stick out more than they would on equivalent European (and American) glamorous women.

PS: After I published this post, a reader kindly sent me a series of links to videos and a photo, which show Asian girls with very prominent ears.  The links are in the comment below. From these, I feel that protruding ears are an issue not just with Chinese girls but with East/South-East Asian girls in general.  Is there a genetic component to all this, I wonder?


Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neumann: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/21/Alfred_E._Neumann.jpg/460px-Alfred_E._Neumann.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_E._Neuman%5D
Pieds Nickelés: http://www.bdoubliees.com/trio/sfig1/pn3.jpg [in http://www.bdoubliees.com/trio/series5/piedsnickeles.htm%5D
Boxer Fred Welsh 1914: http://www.shorpy.com/files/images/17114u.preview.jpg [in http://www.shorpy.com/node/2585%5D
Ancient Greek boxer: http://cultureweekend.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/DSC_0331-540×358.jpg [in http://cultureweekend.com/ciao-bella-italy-nyc/%5D 350 BC-50 BC
Chinese ears: http://images.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/2012-Beijing-Auto-Show-Ears.jpg [in http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/girls-of-the-2012-beijing-auto-show-im-all-ears/%5D
Air hostess: my photo
Actress Zhang Ziyi: http://images6.alphacoders.com/315/315260.jpg [in http://wall.alphacoders.com/big.php?i=315260%5D
Actress Yang Mi: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-o0WNzbJ9JWA/T7W-6rzqm5I/AAAAAAAAHkE/9MmBmWdgZck/s1600/1%2BYang%2BMi%2BRust%2Band%2BBone%2BCannes%2B001.jpg [in http://hong-kong-actresses.blogspot.com/2012/05/yang-mi-and-hao-lei-cannes-red-carpet.html%5D
Actress Lin Chiling: http://chinesemov.com/images/actors2/Lin-Chi-Ling-2.jpg [in http://chinesemov.com/actors/Lin%20Chi-Ling.html%5D


Beijing, 15 November 2013

It often happens to me in China that when I’m writing something I feel a sudden hush around me, perhaps with a whispered comment or two. They have just noticed that I am writing with my left hand.


This habit of mine fascinates Chinese. As far as I can understand, left-handed writing is firmly and vigorously stamped out at school. The Chinese universally write with their right hand.


I guess it has to do with the fact that ink is still extensively used to write, and as all left-handers know writing with ink is a horror because of the constant risk of smudging as your hand travels across the paper.

left hand with smudged ink

But actually, I suspect any left-handedness is proscribed. For instance, all Chinese use their right hand to hold their chopsticks.

Chinese eating

Well, nearly all. I once sat next to a Chinese person who was eating with his left hand; I was very excited when I saw it.

And all Chinese golfers or tennis players seem to play with their right hand.

chinese golfer-boy

chinese tennis player-girl

I wonder if there is some sort of feng shui thing at work here – using your left hand brings bad luck or something. Typical anti-leftism …

As far as writing is concerned, it used to be the same in Europe. My paternal grandmother was born left-handed but was made to write with her right hand. So was my father. So was my brother, who is six years older than me. I went to the same school as him, but I suppose in the intervening six years there was a change in educational philosophies in the UK. I don’t know why, although my theory is that it was the spread of the ball-point pen that did it. This wonderful product eliminated the problem of smudging with fountain pens, so now it was possible for teachers to show more compassion for us left-handers. I take this opportunity to salute the Argentinian-Hungarian László Bíró, who invented the ballpoint in the 1930s.

Laszlo Biro

I hope he was given a special place in Heaven for letting me and millions of other left-handers write with serenity – at least until word processing came along and eliminated the need for either left handers or right handers to write by hand any more.

Often, when Chinese see me writing with my left hand, they tell me that left-handers are more intelligent. They’re just flattering me, but I accept the flattery gracefully. Anyway, it’s true. We left-handers know that we are more intelligent.


Left-hander: http://practicallycreative.net/wp-content/uploads/2007/06/left-handed.jpg [in http://marc3ll.squidoo.com/lefthandedperson%5D
Chinese child writing: http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/child-writing-chinese-calligraphy-9088290.jpg [in http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/x/child-writing-chinese-calligraphy-9088290.jpg%5D
Left hand with smudged ink: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m9s458Vjrl1roqiq1o1_500.png [in http://southpawscopic.tumblr.com/post/31716402201/image-persons-left-hand-smudged-all-over-with%5D
Chinese eating: http://factsanddetails.com/media/2/20080225-wedding%20beifan%2016tbegin-ea222.jpg [in http://factsanddetails.com/china/cat11/sub73/item149.html%5D
Chinese golfer: http://blogs.r.ftdata.co.uk/beyond-brics/files/2013/04/mas_guan-tianlang.jpg [in http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2013/04/17/driving-golf-in-china-citics-sponsorship-of-guan-just-the-start/?Authorised=false%5D
Chinese tennis player: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-08/13/xinsrc_30208051309386711607013.jpg [in http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-08/13/content_9243455_1.htm%5D
László Bíró http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/Ladislao_Biro_Argentina_Circa_1978.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%A1szl%C3%B3_B%C3%ADr%C3%B3%5D


Beijing, 14 November 2013

I was doing my favourite thing two Sundays ago, which is to be with my wife, sipping a cappuccino, and reading the weekend section of the Financial Times. My eyes fell on the cookery section, where Rowley Leigh was explaining how to prepare kedgeree.

Kedgeree …

My mind whirled back 50 years, and suddenly I am a boy again, staying with my English grandmother in London. She is having some guests over to dinner and has prepared kedgeree, one of her signature dishes. She is allowing me to take part in the dinner, and amid the chatter of grown-up conversation around me, I dig into this new dish for me. Ah, the softness of the rice with its buttery taste, overlain by the flavour of strong tasting smoked haddock merging with mild tasting hard-boiled egg. Mmmm …
I once asked my sister if she had ever persuaded my grandmother to hand over her kedgeree recipe (my sister is the cook of the family). She had, and she sent it to me by return of electronic post. I printed it off and slipped the sheet into one of my wife’s cookery books, with the intention of trying it one day. Alas, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say.  That piece of paper has never been used and is now lying, along with the cookery book, in a storage space in Vienna, awaiting our return to Europe.

After receiving the recipe from my sister, my curiosity was piqued and I started to do some research on kedgeree. The first thing I discovered was that its culinary roots are in India!  For some reason, I think because my grandmother was always going on about her Norwegian roots (she was half Norwegian) and because the dish had fish in it (the Norwegians are a sea-faring nation, aren’t they? They must all eat fish), it had to be originally Norwegian, with a name like kåjorø or something.


Of course, the rice should have warned me that Norwegian roots were doubtful, but I wasn’t that sagacious when I was young.  Apart from the rice, my grandmother had eliminated all other references to India. For instance, all recipes mention a sauce in which to cook the rice. There is a good deal of disagreement about what should go into this sauce, but they all agree on at least two ingredients. There should be onions, and there should be curry. Well there you go! My grandmother disliked onions – she didn’t like the smell and I think they disagreed with her digestion (as they do with mine and as they did with my father’s – the mystery of genes; I wonder which part of our DNA helix has problems with onions). In addition, my grandmother really, really disliked curry and all spicy spices. It looks like there too I inherited her bit of anti-spice DNA. So it’s not surprising that she ruthlessly eliminated the onions and the curry from her version of kedgeree, along with the medley of other spices which various sources suggest: cardamom, turmeric, cumin, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, … the Spice Islands unfurl before the eyes. So maybe I wasn’t that wrong all those years ago. My grandmother’s kedgeree may not have come from Norway, but it sure ended up looking and tasting Norwegian.

The fascinating thing is to look at the Indian ancestor of kedgeree. The sources all seem to agree on khichdi as the ultimate source, or khichuri to give it what I think is its Bengali pronunciation. A typical recipe goes like this. First, throw out the fish and egg. This seems to have been a British addition (Wikipedia suggests that Bengalis eat their khichuri with fish and/or eggs, but I was able to find no reference to this in other recipes). Second, add lentils to the mix. Because basically, as far as I can make out what we have here is a dal mixed with rice. Third, add vegetables like cauliflower and peas. Cook the lentils, the rice, and the vegetable in the sauce, et voilà! (more or less; I’m cutting details).


How did this Indian dish mutate into its pale British imitation? I construct the following hypothetical journey – a complete fabrication, I’m sure, but it satisfies my sense of the romantic. I take as true the Wikipedian claim that Bengalis added fish and eggs to their khichuri. So I imagine that khichuri started its journey to kedgeree in Calcutta, among the men of the East India Company.


At the beginning, there were few British women in India to feed the men their British meat and potatoes, and since the men did not cook (of course) their diet went native. So far so good. But here I have recourse to another aspect of khichuri, that it is fed to those who are recovering from sickness or are otherwise generally feeble. And so I imagine that the Indian servants fed khichuri to their East India Company masters who had been felled by one of the many diseases of the Indian subcontinent to which their British constitution was not used and against which they had no defence, natural or pharmaceutical.  Since the British were very often sick (the death rate among the British at the beginning of their rule in India was alarmingly high), they were very often fed khichuri by their Indian servants. Thus was born a love of khichuri among the British men of India.


Now we have to move on some decades, to when sanitary conditions got better and medicines more effective, travel to India quicker, and racist theories about the superiority of the British over the Indians grew stronger. This last factor led from an earlier disapproval of having British women around to a disapproval of having British men – naturally, given the circumstances – consorting with Indian women. British men, it was decreed, should be with British women. The better and quicker travel meant that single (normally dowryless) British women could be brought over by the boatload and married off to the single British men running India. The better sanitary conditions and more effective medicines meant that they didn’t die in droves and had time to set up stable families.

So were born the memsahibs, that army of British women who ran the men who ran India.


They were the keepers of the flame of Britishness.  Everything became more British and the divide between British and Indians widened and deepened.

British family in india

Britification included the cuisine, of course. Meat, two veg, and potatoes, along with soggy deserts, became de rigeur, and all things Indian in the kitchen were determinedly stamped out (except the cook, of course; memsahibs did not cook).

But some Indian dishes survived the onslaught and slipped into the mainstream of British food. Chutney was one, although much of the original Indian spiciness and sourness was stripped out in the transition. When I was young chutney seemed as British as cricket.


Mulligatawny soup (Milagu thanni in Tamil) was another, although my Wikipedian sources tell me that the British got confused and gave the name of one soup to the recipe of another; what the Brits eat really should be called Russum soup.


And of course there was khichdi /khichuri/kedgeree.

For some reason, in Anglo-India kedgeree became a breakfast dish, perhaps because fish (in the form of kippers) and eggs were typical ingredients of the British breakfast while the idea of eating rice at breakfast made sense in India.

breakfast-british raj

But I have to think that once kedgeree filtered back to the UK proper, the rice content meant that it migrated to the lunch and dinner menus; that’s certainly where my grandmother had it.

Of course, Indian cuisine has had the last laugh. When I was a young, impoverished University student, going to an Indian restaurant was a good option for a night out. The restaurants were slightly dodgy, the sort of places where you weren’t quite sure of the source of the meat on your plate (a story which made the rounds of the student dorms was of an inspection of an Indian restaurant turning up a dead dog in the kitchen’s refrigerator).  But now, as far as I can make out the English themselves are cooking Indian food. My guess is that in another thirty years British cooking won’t exist anymore in Britain. Everyone will eat Indian.

Indian cookery book


Kedgeree: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b8/Kedgeree.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Indian_cuisine%5D
Viking longship: http://www.celticattic.com/scandinavian/images/viking_longship.jpg [in http://www.celticattic.com/contact_us/norwegian_connection/ships.htm%5D
Kichdi: http://jainrasoi.com/mg/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/moong-mogar-dal-khichdi-600×450.jpg [in http://jainrasoi.com/khichdi/moong-mogar-dal-khichdi%5D
East India company: http://thediplomat.com/sport-culture/files/2012/01/East-India-Company.jpg [in http://thediplomat.com/sport-culture/2012/01/12/revisiting-the-east-india-co/%5D
Sick man: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-HhdTZia6Bzk/ULac2VucJAI/AAAAAAAAAN0/rCoD3QxO_us/s1600/sick_man_24338_md.gif [in http://storytimehats.blogspot.com/2012/11/sick-to-move.html%5D
Memsahibs: http://s157.photobucket.com/user/dismasdolben/media/memsahibs.jpg.html?t=1176095517 [in http://sanatana-dharma.livejournal.com/106044.html%5D
British family in India: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-JXoJcY6cvfg/T33zjAqxGjI/AAAAAAAAAc4/Ln-30Elvh-8/s1600/British+india.jpg [in http://hkm128.blogspot.com/2012/04/being-dark-skinned-in-india.html%5D
Chutney: http://www.taste-of-arran.co.uk/data/shop/Madras%20Fruit%20Chutney.jpg [in http://www.taste-of-arran.co.uk/item.asp?itemid=121%5D
Mulligatawny soup: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Mulligatawny.jpg/800px-Mulligatawny.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulligatawny%5D
Breakfast-British Raj: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-pEIQ5D-CSEU/UCo2tDj8nNI/AAAAAAAAJs8/35DYCGC5zk4/s1600/raj.jpg [in http://marykunzgoldman.com/2012/08/breakfast-of-champions.html%5D
British Indian cookery book: http://www.greatcurryrecipes.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/FRONT-COVER-NEW-BOOK1.jpg [in http://www.greatcurryrecipes.net/2012/05/12/a-review-of-british-indian-restaurant-style-cooking-by-mick-crawford/%5D


Beijing, 10 November 2013

I don’t think I’ll be able to wear my poppy this year.


Every year I pick it out of the corner of the drawer where I keep it, from under the paper clips and rubber bands. After four years in China, the paper petals are now sadly scuffed and creased, but I still like to give it pride of place in the lapel of my jacket. I am somewhat diffident to wear it here, because everyone stares at it wondering what it is. Several of my Chinese staff have asked me politely what it means. After I’ve gone through the explanation, they thank me nicely but I rather think they put my behaviour down to a form of British eccentricity.

It was the same in Vienna. You would have thought that Europeans would be more familiar with the British paper poppy and its symbolism but it seems not. Every year, I would be asked by two or three people what it was all about, and every time I would go through the explanation.

In Vienna, the enquirers would often start by commenting that they had seen the same poppy being worn by British politicians

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (

and indeed it is the sight of these politicians on my TV screen looking pious behind their poppies that reminds me that it is once again that time of the year … the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was on 11 November 1918 that the Armistice between Germany and the Allied Forces was signed. The guns finally fell silent on the Western Front and the First World War came to an end.

The habit in the Commonwealth countries of wearing a poppy to remember the end of that war, and to raise funds for the wounded who came home and the widows and orphans of those who did not, grew out of a popular war poem written by a Canadian officer, John McCrae, who fought on the Western Front. I cite its first two verses here.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Anyone who has ever seen a field sprinkled with poppies will immediately understand their strong symbolic resonance. They look like so much blood sprayed across the land.

poppies in field-3

Earlier pious-looking politicians proclaimed that the First World War was the war to end all wars. Well, as we are all too aware, it wasn’t. As wars have continued to be fought, the poppy has become the way for the British and ex-British colonies of remembering their war dead. But I wear my poppy to remember all those who have died – civilians as well as soldiers – and continue to die in wars and other conflicts big and small the world over. Just this year we have the human tragedy of Syria, which is spilling over into Lebanon, there is the continuing conflict in Afghanistan which is spilling over into Pakistan, the continuing violence in Iraq and Libya, the growing violence in Egypt, the fighting in South Sudan, in Somalia, in the Congo, in Mali, in Myanmar, and on and on and on …


When you see the sheer scale of the human misery which all this fighting engenders you understand why I did not cite the last verse of John McCrae’s poem.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I hate this glorifying of war, this coating in a veneer of sacred language what is simply a nasty, brutish fight. I prefer the following poem from that same war

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori..
[It is sweet and right to die for your country, a line from the Latin poet Horace]

dead soldiers

blinded soldiers


The poem was written by Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the Armistice was signed. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration …

I must find a few minutes tomorrow to wear my poppy. I must make my annual statement against war, even if I am the only one to understand what I’m saying.


poppy in jacket: http://wpmedia.o.canada.com/2013/10/remembrance_frustrated_vets_20121108_24958803.jpg?w=660&h=330&crop=1 [in http://o.canada.com/technology/internet/legion-asks-redditors-to-remove-poppy-symbol-citing-trademark-protection/%5D
Politicians with poppies: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-9GUo5YLH4iQ/Tr_Fb1rb4AI/AAAAAAAAInQ/qOXaLXKgfjg/s1600/a-9.jpg [in http://nobelprofile.blogspot.com/2011_10_16_archive.html%5D
Poppies in field: http://gallery.photo.net/photo/7644092-md.jpg [http://photo.net/blog/tag?tag=nature]
Wounded person: http://www.lapatilla.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/000_Nic6168584.jpg [http://www.lapatilla.com/site/2012/12/28/las-mejores-fotos-de-la-semana-5/]
Dead soldiers: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/89/Q_004256GermanDeadGuillemont.jpg [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties]
Blinded soldiers: http://www.icrc.org/eng/who-we-are/history/first-world-war/v-p-hist-03088-25.jpg [in http://www.icrc.org/eng/who-we-are/history/first-world-war/overview-first-world-war.htm%5D
Crippled soldiers: http://www.ralphmag.org/CG/war-cripples640x432.gif [in http://www.ralphmag.org/CG/world-war-one2.html%5D


Beijing, 3 November 2013

My wife and I went to an art show last weekend in an old temple located somewhere in the hutongs behind Beijing’s old drum tower (as a friend whom we met there said, “great space, great mulled wine, average art”). We went for a walk around the area afterwards, and I spied this kaki tree in full fruit peeping over a high wall.

kaki over temple wall 002

For those of my readers who can’t quite make out the tree in my picture, here is a much better take of the same species.


I realized that it was that time of the year again, when the kaki are fully ripened and ready to eat. And I suddenly noticed that all the Chinese grocers were filled with kaki.

I’ve noted in a much earlier posting that my wife brought much more food and culinary novelty to our marriage than I did. One of these was the kaki, which I first saw in Liguria during one of our trips out to the sea in the late months of the year.

cachi in liguria

My mother-in-law was very fond of this fruit, but I must say I have never been convinced by it. I appreciate neither its mushiness nor its sweetness. I’ve eaten it but rarely during the years since I first discovered it, and every time I have been reinforced in my lack of enthusiasm for the fruit.

kaki fruit

Without really thinking about it much, I assumed that this tree and its fruit were native to the Mediterranean. I adopted the Italian spelling cachi as the original spelling. Imagine my surprise, then, when several years after my initial discovery of the fruit, we came across the tree laden with fruit during the trip which my wife and I made to Japan, and our Japanese companion informed us that it was called kaki. Kaki! The scales fell from my eyes. This must have originally been a Japanese tree, which was brought to Italy at some point – back in the 1800’s, I have since discovered. Another botanical species, like the ginkgo which I’ve written about earlier, which was trekked back to Europe during the first era of globalization.

Actually, I was wrong again! Because, like the ginkgo, the kaki is actually native to China and at some point got transported over to Japan – along with Buddhism perhaps? So if I were a linguistic purist I should switch to calling it shizi, which is its Chinese name. But I’m getting old and set in my habits. Kaki it will remain.

Talking of names, English-speaking readers may be asking themselves what the English name of the tree and fruit is. It was years before I asked myself that question and looked up cachi in an Italian-English dictionary. Persimmon, that’s what it is! Persimmon … that was a word which had hovered on the far horizons of my linguistic knowledge. I’d heard it spoken or maybe seen it written, I knew vaguely it was a fruit, but that was it. It sounds such an upper-class English name, don’t you think? Like Fitzwilliam or the Duke of Buccleuch. So it was another surprise to me to discover that persimmon is actually an English transliteration of the word pasiminan or pessamin, an Algonquian word from the eastern United States. Another result of the first era of globalization, in this case the colonization of North America. Because there is also a species of kaki that is native to Eastern North America, the American Persimmon.

American persimmon-tree

American persimmon-fruit

I prefer the formal Latin name Diospyros virginiana, which suggests to me that it was in the British colony of Virginia that the Brits first came across the tree.

By the way, there is actually a species of Diospyros which is native to the Mediterranean; actually, its range is somewhat broader, stretching from Southeast Europe to Southwest Asia. In English, it’s called the date-plum tree. Apparently, the fruit’s taste reminds one of both plums and dates.

date plum diospyros lotos-tree

Maybe I’m pushing this globalization thing too far, but I see another strand of globalization in that name. It is a literal translation of the Persian name for the tree and its fruit: khormaloo. In the earlier period of globalization, American colonists were content to simply anglicize the Native American name. But in a later, more learned period of globalization, when some more academic Brits actually learned the foreign languages which the expanding British Empire was coming into contact with, rather than call the tree, say, cormalew, they preferred to translate the original name.

Actually, the Latin name of this species of kaki, Diospyros lotos, is even more interesting. It refers to a belief in Greece that this fruit could have been the lotus fruit mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. According to that story, the lotus fruit was so delicious that those of Odysseus’s men who ate it forgot about returning home and wanted to stay and eat lotus with the native lotus-eaters. I throw in here a screenshot from an electronic game based on Odysseus’s story; the fruit looks vaguely kaki-like (amazing what they will make electronic games about …)

lotus eaters-2

Personally, I can’t think that kaki is the lotus-fruit. All that squishiness and mushiness would definitely not make me stick around.


Kaki over the wall: my picture
Kaki: http://www.flickr.com/photos/giagir/5185254421/sizes/z/in/photostream/ [in http://www.flickriver.com/photos/giagir/5185254421/%5D
Cachi in liguria: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ciric/3032113542/sizes/z/in/photostream/ in [http://www.flickr.com/photos/ciric/3031273027/]
Kaki fruit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/Diospiros_kaki_Fruit_IMG_5472s.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persimmon%5D
American persimmon tree: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-hroimehTRQk/TlPhN7euB8I/AAAAAAAAAds/lBlwEER714k/s1600/persimmon4.jpg [in http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2011/08/permaculture-plants-persimmons.html%5D
American persimmon fruit: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-b3lVcZ8FOnw/TlPgCINg7VI/AAAAAAAAAdk/LQCyiQYUw2c/s1600/Persimmon3.png [in http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2011/08/permaculture-plants-persimmons.html%5D
Date plum-tree: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/63/Diospyros_lotus_01.jpg/800px-Diospyros_lotus_01.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Date-plum%5D
Odysseus and the lotus eaters: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-2uTp30FUU4E/UaHOcmkRBwI/AAAAAAAACsY/UU21szj7LBk/s1280/013_Lotus_Eaters.jpg  [in http://www.gamrgrl.com/2013/05/walkthrough-odyssey-hd.html%5D


Beijing, 2 November 2013

revised 14 December 2014

So Europe has been abuzz with the story of a little girl – Maria is her name – with the blondest of blonde hair and the bluest of blue eyes, who was found living with a Roma family in Greece. Her sweet little face flashed across all our television screens.

Little-girl-found-in-a-Roma camp

Greek police suspected, based on the lack of physical similarities between her and her supposed parents, that she was not their child.

marias greek so-called parents

Of course, there was a racist element in the whole discussion: how on earth could Romani have blonde children? Everybody knows that Romani are dark and swarthy (and shifty and unreliable and of thievish disposition and, and, and …). The obvious corollary was that the Romani had stolen Maria from a “normal” family. There was a certain level of triumphalism when science came along with DNA tests which proved without a shadow of doubt that the Romani who claimed to be her parents were in fact not her parents. So I had to laugh when DNA tests went on to show that actually Maria is a Roma – but from another Roma family in Bulgaria. And her Bulgarian parents look just as dark and swarthy as the Greek “parents”!

marias bulgarian real parents-2

And to top it all, as the picture shows, they have other equally blonde children!

It seems that the solution of the mystery is simple enough. All this testing has shown that Maria’s father carries the gene for albinism. So Maria and her other white-skinned, blonde-haired children are albinos.

Actually, when we get away from all the fuss and bother of these last few days along with the borderline racism of it all, there is the deeper, fascinating tale of the Roma people themselves. For some 200 years already, scholars have inferred from the Romani’s language that their original home must have been the Indian subcontinent and more specifically somewhere in its northwestern part (I won’t bore you – or myself – with the details, but it has to do with the fact that the Romani language is clearly a New Indo-Aryan language rather than a Middle Indo-Aryan language, with the closest affinities to the Saraiki linguistic group, which is native to southern Punjab, northern Sindh, Southern Khyber Pakhtunkha and northeastern Balochistan provinces of Pakistan). So how come little Maria ended up in Bulgaria?

To answer that question, it would be nice if the Romani had written histories and other documents which would tell us what happened to them after they had left their original home and, after much wandering, ended up in Europe. But like most marginalized peoples, the Romani have little if any written documents. And so we are left with mentions of their passage – mostly disapproving if not downright hostile – in the documents of the countries they crossed, along with the Romani’s own myths and folklore about their past.

And now we also have genetics.

Modern genetics is amazing. Truly, we carry our history in our cells. Scientists can carefully tease out from those millions of chemicals spiraling in our DNAs our story as peoples. As the biotechnology tools and equipment have grown more powerful – and cheaper – more and more historical information about us is being squeezed from our cells. The Romani are no exception. I have just finished reading a scientific article about a large genetic study recently undertaken on the Romani – the latest of a series. It was pretty hard going, I have to tell you. Here is a sample: “we applied the ADMIXTURE clustering method to estimate the membership of each individual to a range of k hypothetical ancestral populations (k = 2 to k = 15, see Figures 2C, S1D, and S1E). At k = 2, a longitudinal gradient on the amount of ancestry of each component is observed from India to Europe (Spearman’s rho = 0.935, p < 10216, after exclusion of European Romani; Figure S1F)”. Aie-aie-aie! But I ploughed through the article, and this is what I got from it (with some help from a review of the article in Scientific American, I will admit).

We can start with this prettily coloured map.

india map

It shows the strength of affinity between the Romani’s genetic makeup and that of the modern populations of the Indian subcontinent (red, the strongest affinity; blue, the weakest). It tells us that most probably the Romani’s homeland was somewhere in the valley of the Indus River. This fits nicely with the linguistic evidence I mentioned earlier.

I throw in a picture here of one of the modern inhabitants of this part of India, a Punjabi farmer

punjabi farmer

Many of them are now Sikhs, but take away the turban and other Sikh attributes I don’t suppose the first Romani looked very different from this distinguished gentleman.

Genetics also tell us that it was very probably one group of people who left (rather than a number of groups leaving at different times and mingling over the centuries of their wanderings), and that they left in about 500 AD. Genetics can’t tell us why they left, alas, but a look at India’s history books shows that this was the time when the White Huns conquered the northwestern part of India from the Gupta Empire. Perhaps the Romani’s ancestors wanted to get out of the way of the fighting, or they were on the losing side of the fight and had had their lands taken from them.

Quite soon after leaving, genetics goes on to tell us, this so-called “founder group” went through what geneticists euphemistically call a bottleneck, which is another way of saying that the group’s numbers dropped sharply, in this case by half. Perhaps the White Huns caught up with them, perhaps a local population objected to their presence on their territories, perhaps they were decimated by some infectious disease. We’ll probably never know. In any case, genetics tells us that thereafter they moved quite fast through the Caucasus and the Middle East, mixing only moderately with the local populations along the way.

In about 800 AD, they ended up in Bulgaria; genetics tells us that this was their trampoline into Europe. And there they stayed for some three hundred years, according to the genetics, until about 1100 AD, when they started dispersing throughout the rest of Europe. The genetics can tease out two main dispersal streams, one to Western Europe and the other to Eastern Europe. Something bad happened to the Western European group in about 1200-1300 AD; their genes went through another strong “bottleneck”, equivalent to their losing some 30% of their population. Could it have been the Black Death? But why didn’t the Eastern European Group suffer similarly? The plague struck there too (except in the area of what is now mostly Poland). Again, we’ll probably never know.

Be that as it may, the genes also give us an indication of how much the Romani people have mixed their genes with other people’s as they spread through Europe. Overall, the Romani haven’t mixed much; their genes show more evidence of marriage among blood relatives than is the case with the other European populations (an interesting exception are the Welsh Romani, who seem to have mixed quite a bit). But they haven’t kept completely to themselves. And here there is an interesting difference between various groups of Romani. For instance, Romani from Spain and Portugal, but also from Lithuania, seem to have mixed more readily with the local populations in the past than they have recently. The opposite pattern is seen in the genes of the Romani populations from Slovakia and Hungary in Central Europe, and Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, in the Balkans. Here, the Romani kept to themselves for a long time but then more recently have mixed with other populations.

Given our generalized suspicion of Romani and our desire to keep away from them (I remember as a child being told that gypsies would carry you off if you weren’t careful, that you had to keep away from gypsy encampments, etc. etc.), how did any mixing between Roma and non-Roma take place at all? Well, it could have been kidnapping, as was the initial suspicion in the case of Maria. But it could just as well have been a case of Romani women being raped. But more likely it was people who, out of desperation, running away from dire poverty or abuse or some other misery, or out of a love for the open road, joined groups of Romani. And so mixed their genes with those of the Romani.

The urge, or need, to take to the open road is not a monopoly of the Romani. Many local European populations have done so over the ages. In my country, we have the English Travellers, the Highland Travellers, the Welsh Travellers. The Irish have their Travellers.


The Norwegians have theirs. The Dutch have their Woonwagenbewoners (“caravan residents”). The Germans have their Landfahrer (“country drivers”). Germany and Switzerland (but also parts of France and Austria) have had the Jenische.


The Spaniards have their mercheros. And of course there are Show Travellers, all those people who travel around working in circuses, fairgrounds and the like.


And then we have those who don’t belong to any particular community, who are out on the roads alone, the tramps, who were turned into philosophers by Samuel Beckett in his immortal play Waiting for Godot


Many of these groups formed through poverty and desperation. But fascinatingly enough, the urge to make for the highway hasn’t died down, even in our rich, modern societies. We now have New Age Travellers, who travel between musical festivals and similar happenings.


This last photo, with the policeman standing guard, says everything about the relationship us settled people have with the travellers. We view them with suspicion, bordering on fear. These people are shifting, rootless, not only physically but morally. They are dangerous. It was ever so, the relationship between the settled farming communities and the travelling herders of the plains, the grasslands, of the wide-open spaces. Why, even the Bible has its story of this difficult, often violent, relationship between the two peoples, in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain was the settled farmer, Abel was the wandering shepherd. Cain was jealous of Abel, who seemed to enjoy God’s favour more, and he killed him.

cain and abel

Yes, we fear them and have pushed them further and further to the fringes of our societies. But they despise us. I rather like the term Show Travellers use to describe us settled folk: Flatties. Yes, I suppose our lives are flatter for not being out on the road.

NOTE: I thank Andrew for correcting a fundamental mistake I made in the original post. I had not picked up on the fact that our little Maria is in all probability an albino.


Little blonde girl found in Roma camp: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499215.1382989726!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/185472147.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D
Maria’s Greek “parents”: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499217.1382989729!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/greece-girl.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D
Maria’s Bulgarian parents: http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1499220.1382989732!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/roma29n-2-web.jpg [in http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/roma-mom-maria-back-article-1.1499222%5D
Map of India: from the quoted article  (hyperlinked)
Punjabi farmer: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4005/4432639845_00be7b0578_z.jpg?zz=1 [in http://www.flickr.com/photos/gurbirsinghbrar/4432639845/%5D
Irish travelers: http://static1.demotix.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/a_scale_large/700-6/photos/1306505237-irish-travellers-in-the-uk_705916.jpg [in http://www.demotix.com/news/705942/irish-travellers-uk#media-705926%5D
Jenische: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/10/Jenische_um1890_Muotathal_CHe.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeniche_people%5D
Fairground: http://www.callington-tc.gov.uk/images/Honey_Fair_stalls.jpg [in http://www.callington-tc.gov.uk/civic_community/honey_fair.html%5D
Waiting for Godot: http://rosariomariocapalbo.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/waiting-for-godot11.jpg [in http://rosariomariocapalbo.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/samuel-beckettwaiting-for-godot/%5D
New Age travelers: http://www.assetstorage.co.uk/AssetStorageService.svc/GetImageFriendly/721206537/700/700/0/0/1/80/ResizeBestFit/0/PressAssociation/F2E18D5B4CC53FE75B4C42D68612D0FF/new-age-travellers-in-winchester.jpg [in http://www.friendsreunited.co.uk/new-age-travellers-in-winchester/Memory/b7746d77-162d-4041-8b82-a00a012a3288%5D
Cain and Abel: http://www.artbible.info/images/kain_abel_grt.jpg [in http://www.artbible.info/art/large/81.html%5D