New York, 22 December 2013

My wife and I have been trying for a while now to get our son to stop smoking. He’s the same age, give or take a year, that we were when we stopped but he’s still on 10 a day – more if the stress levels are high. With us cheering him on, he has tried various things: patches, gum, and I know not what. He even went cold turkey for a while.  All for naught. So when back in May he decided to try e-cigarettes, we redoubled our cheering.
I know, they’re not the miracle cure they are sometimes claimed to be, but on balance we think they are better than real cigarettes.

Almost immediately, though, our son’s experiment with e-cigarettes went awry. During a night out with the boys just after he started using it the body broke (for the uninitiated, I should explain that an e-cigarette is composed of a body and a head; the two are separable and can be purchased separately, an important detail in the unfolding drama). After much badgering – our son was very busy with his new business (which of course augmented the stress levels and thus the cigarette consumption) – he finally got around to purchasing a new body via internet and received said body through the post. My wife and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that he would imminently be throwing away his cigarette packs. But no. Our son discovered that he couldn’t remove the head from the old body despite the use of much brute strength and wrenches. So still no e-cigarette use.

Things stood thus for several months before we came to New York to spend Christmas with the children. We were determined to move things along. After more badgering, we got some guidance from our son as to where we might go to separate head from body. Our initial thought had been to find a repair shop of some sort. But who runs repair shops these days, especially for so arcane a product as e-cigarettes?

So our search shifted to so-called vapor stores. These are locales which are vigorously promoting e-cigarettes and the vapor lifestyle. Again, to make sure that the uninitiated are following, recall that the principle of e-cigarettes is that you inhale water vapor impregnated with nicotine, taste molecules (our son favors mint and watermelon), and a few other odds and ends. Thus, vapor is central to the e-cigarette experience, thus stores offering this new lifestyle are called vapor stores, and thus the devotees of this new lifestyle call themselves vapers (in contrast to smokers; cute, no?).
We located two vapor stores in Lower Manhattan. The precise location of the stores is already an indication of the life choices of the fans of the vapor lifestyle. Because when I say lower Manhattan, I don’t mean Wall Street or thereabouts, the hang-out of the Gods of Finance and their acolytes from New Jersey, I mean NoLiTa. This is an area north of Little Italy (whence the name NoLiTa; the serious New Yorker must keep up with the continuous creation of new locational acronyms). I am informed that NoLiTa is now a very cool area to live in for those into the more alternative lifestyles.
After some blundering around the small streets of NoLiTa, we finally found the first vapor store on our list. As we entered, we suddenly felt like dinosaurs, relics from a past era.
dinosaur skeletons
Everyone in the place could have been our son or daughter, and every single one of them was puffing on an e-cigarette. They looked at us rather surprised. Clearly, troglodytes like us did not enter the shop often, if at all.

We diffidently made our way to the counter where a young man served us, e-cigarette in hand. And as we explained the problem, he sucked on his e-cigarette and breathed out vapor from his nostrils in a fashion that was very reminiscent of angry bulls in cartoons – my wife and I checked notes afterwards and both agreed on this point
bull snorting
After this impressively taurine display, our young man managed to separate head from damaged body and sold us a bottle of mint-tasting e-cigarette liquid. At which point our son rolled in and took over, giving my wife and I the leisure to look the place over.

Calling this a store is clearly a misnomer. What we have here is an experience, an event. Other than the counter and the vitrines in one corner showing off e-cigarettes and related paraphernalia

vapor shop-1

our store had a bar in another corner where various high-end teas were being served – no tea bags here – and where clients could sit at the bar sipping their tea, chatting convivially, and of course puffing on their e-cigarettes together.
vapor shop-4
In yet another corner it had a nook where vapers could sit on smart but environmentally-friendly furniture made with discarded objects, and flip through high-end magazines like Monocle, all the while puffing meditatively on their e-cigarettes.

vapor shop-5

(these photos are not of the store we saw, but the fact that I found them, and many others like it, makes me think that this is the basic blueprint of all vapor stores)

It all rather reminded me of the more traditional smoking rooms of the 19th Century

smoking room victorian england

or more darkly of those high-end turn of the 19th Century Parisian brothels which Toulouse-Lautrec liked to paint
brothel Toulouse Lautrec
Like the French say, “plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, the more it changes and the more it’s the same thing. In every age, there’s always a part of society which wants to be exotic.

But all my wife and I want is for our son to quit smoking.


e-cigarette: [in
smoking e-cigarette: [in
NoLiTa: [in
Dinosaur skeletons: [in
Bull snorting: [in
Vapor shop-1: [in
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Vapor shop-3: [in
Smoking parlour Victorian England: [in
Brothel Toulouse Lautrec: [in


Beijing, 21 December 2013

I was 13 when I started wearing jackets. They were part of our school uniform. I shucked them off when I went to University, along with many other habits both material and spiritual, but in the case of jackets it was a brief reprieve. Once I entered the workforce, it was back to wearing jackets. I suffered at first but now I don’t mind anymore. Whenever I see my wife rummaging around in her bag muttering under her breath that she could swear she put it in (“it” being any number of things) and where on earth was it?, I thank Fate that men wear jackets. Because to me jackets have become the equivalent of a handbag, except that contrary to handbags the pockets are all handily separated. This makes it so much easier to retrieve my stuff: mobile phone in the left-hand external pocket, packet of paper handkerchiefs in the right-hand external pocket, glasses and computer stick (you never know when you might need to copy a document) in the inside left-hand pocket, passport and pens in the inside right-hand pocket, clip-ons in the breast pocket, business cards in that little inside pocket down towards the left, from which you can fish out a card and present it to your interlocutor in one smooth, fluid, business-like movement.

This close relationship in my mind between the handbag and the jacket has meant that I am relatively insensitive to the sartorial aspects of jacket wearing. Frankly, I would just keep wearing the same jacket for ever if I could – such a nuisance to have to shift everything to the pockets of the new jacket! And having to make choices in the morning about what new jacket to wear, when really all I want to do is to go back to bed, is very tough. But luckily my wife is at hand to firmly guide me through the relatively frequent decision-making process of jacket-changing.

At this point, you would be excused if you thought that I am completely uninterested in jackets as fashion statements. But actually from time to time I have been able to appreciate a style in jackets. This happened, for instance, when we moved to Vienna. I noticed with great interest that many men wore jackets like this

Trachten jacket

Commonly called a Styrian jacket, its cut is a cross between the traditional gear which hunters wore in the Alpine valleys of the Austrian province of Styria


and early 19th Century military uniforms, which we see here (for reasons which will soon become apparent) being shown off by Archduke Johann of Austria, 13th child (no less) of Emperor Leopold II.

Archduke Johann

To my mind, the collar is what makes the Styrian jacket very distinctive, although as the last photo shows it has been reduced considerably compared to its military forebear.

Unfortunately, wearers of this type of jacket in Austria are normally making a strong social statement. They are usually advertising their conservative credentials, which is why many wearers are of the older generation:

old fogey

Although its distant roots are in the Styrian peasantry, the jacket’s recent pedigree is very aristocratic. It was brought from the Styrian farms to Vienna’s imperial court in the early 19th Century by the same Archduke Johann I just mentioned. Initially considered with suspicion by Crown and aristocracy (Archduke Johann was a tad too close to the people for them), it eventually caught on and was popularized (if that’s the word) by the Austrian upper classes and their hangers-on in the middle classes. Which is no doubt why Christopher Plummer’s Captain von Trapp  is shown wearing one in The Sound of Music

Christopher Plummer-sound of music

Wearing the jacket can also have strong political overtones, declaring the wearer’s oh-so Austrian credentials, a rampart against the sea of dubious Eastern European influence lapping up against the edges of the country’s pristine Alpine ranges. Which is why Jörg Haider, the far Right governor of the province of Carinthia, liked being seen in the Carinthian version of this jacket (the earth tones, the “good earth of Carinthia” is what makes the jacket specifically Carinthian).


But actually you don’t have to belong to the huntin’-and-shootin’ set, or want to make a political statement about smelly foreigners, to wear this jacket. To my mind, it works brilliantly well in more casual “modern” settings


where the somewhat militaristic cut of the jacket contrasts pleasingly with the relaxed style of the rest of the outfit.

I have one such Styrian jacket, a light summer one, but I left that behind in Vienna. I have another winter jacket with me in Beijing, which is actually a Bavarian Miesbacher jacket (so I suppose strictly speaking the title of this piece is wrong – but the Bavarians and the Austrians are very similar, even in their sartorial preferences, sharing as they do the same Alpine history).


The Chinese look at me curiously when I wear the jacket, and sometimes they ask me what it is. I explain, but I don’t think they really appreciate; I suppose you need to have seen an Alpine valley or two.

The interesting thing is that the Chinese, or rather the Manchu of the Qing imperial court, created a style which was a precursor for a similar jacket in the UK, where the collar is often called the Mandarin collar. This picture of Qing dignitaries nicely shows the collar in its original setting:

Manchu men

After the collision of East and West in China, with the West coming out on top, this traditional dress morphed into a jacket, in response to the “modern” forms of Western wear invading China. It is commonly thought that Mao Zedong popularized the new style – and in fact the collar is often referred to as a Mao collar – but actually it is to Sun Yat Sen, the first President of modern China and founder of the Kuomintang, that this honour should go:

Sun Yat Sen

(which, as a trivial aside, I suppose must be the model for the jacket worn by Dr. No, the arch-evil adversary of James Bond in the 1962 film of the same name.)


This sartorial strand is somehow mixed up with another strand emanating from India. There, during the 1940s the Indians developed the Band Gale Ka Coat, Urdu for “Closed Neck Coat”, an apt name indeed.  This coat became a global star thanks to another leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of modern, post-colonial India, who was often seen wearing a version of it.


All of this gave rise to the British variant of the “closed neck” jacket, the so-called Nehru jacket:


The interesting thing is that while the Austrian version of the jacket tends to be favoured by the right-wing elements of society, in its heyday – the Swinging Sixties – the British version was favoured by the left-wing elements, or at least the cooler, hipper set. Taking rock bands as a good indicator of all things cool, we have here a photo of The Who, where you will notice Roger Daltry wearing a Nehru jacket

The Who

while in this photo, we have – gasp! shriek! tearing of hair! – John and Paul of the Fab Four sporting Nehru jackets during a concert

The Beatles

Why, even in the US the Nehru jacket made its appearance among the modish set, as this ad with Sammy Davis Jr attests!

Sammy Davis Jr

So with such stellar support I don’t suppose I can be very far off the mark in thinking that the closed neck style for a jacket is kinda nice. Nowadays, though, in the UK the style seems to be more in the purview of women, as shown by this photo from last year of Catherine Ashton at one of the many meetings she held with the-then Iranian negotiator on nuclear issues, Saeed Jalili:

European Union foreign policy chief Ashton and Iran's chief negotiator Jalili pose for the media before their meeting in Baghdad

No matter. I will continue to beat my lonely path with my Bavarian jacket in China.

And I need to look into the shirt which Jalili is wearing. It’s pretty nifty, eliminating as it does the need for a tie, which is no bad thing. Another piece of clothing which I was required to start wearing, along with jackets, when I was 13 …

Trachten jacket: [in
Styrian hunter: [in
Archduke Johann: [inÖsterreich%5D
Old fogey: [in
Christopher Plummer-Sound of Music: [in
Haider: [in
Steireranzug: [in
Miesbacher jacket: [in
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Dr. No: [in
Nehru and Jackie Kennedy: [in
Nehru jacket: [in
The Who: [in
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Sammy Davis Jr: [in
Ashton and Jalili: [in


Beijing, 11 December 2013

I’ve just come back to China from a business trip abroad. As is my habit on these trips, I picked up whatever English-language newspapers were being proffered at the plane door. On the return leg, I found myself with the International New York Times (until recently the International Herald Tribune). Once we had taken off, I settled into my usual reading routine, which is to start with the cartoons, have a stab at the Sudoku and sometimes the crossword (depending on how easy it is), then meander through the rest of the newspaper, settling on whatever articles catch my eye. In this particular edition, I came across an article entitled “Letting the Nose Lead the Way”, about the durian. The article was a paean to the durian, the author an unashamed fan. So much of a fan that I decided to write this post in protest and to right the balance.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the durian, this is it:

durian on tree

It is a tropical fruit common throughout Southeast Asia and southern China. A huge fruit which can weigh up to three kilogrammes and whose husk is covered with large nasty spikes. Which two facts together lead some to wear safety helmets if they venture into durian orchards when the fruit is ripe and ready to fall. I kid you not:

safety helmets under durian trees

When you split open the husk you find these squishy pods inside

durian inside

Durian inside-2

which smell and taste absolutely … disgusting.

The first – and last – time I ate durian was in Malaysia in the mid-1990s. I was with a Moroccan colleague. It was the first time for both of us in the country. We were with a third colleague, an Italian, who had been many times to Malaysia. We were driving through some village when he suddenly ordered the driver to stop and us to get out. We were confronted by a roadside vendor behind a pile of these large spiky fruits. We absolutely had to try one, our Italian colleague declared, it was rightly called the king of fruits. The vendor split open the husk, and a nauseous smell hit us.  We hesitated, but he urged us on; get beyond the smell, he cried, the taste is sublime. And all my life I will remember the face of my Moroccan colleague as he bit into that yellow guck, a look of pure horror and utter revulsion. A look which was mirrored in my face as I too bit into the guck. This photo, of a poor kid who has just tried durian for the first time in Indonesia, sums up the experience well.


Never, ever, again.

You don’t have to open the husk to get the smell. It spreads around the unopened fruit like a sickening miasma. So strong is the smell that durians are often prohibited from enclosed public spaces.  I disovered this in Singapore after my trip to Malaysia, where there were prominent signs banning durian from the subway system.


The long list of things you can’t do in Singapore has now become something of a joke, but the ban of durians on the subway is one which I completely and heartily approve of.

If this had been my only experience with tropical fruit in Malaysia, I would have left the country with a permanently bad impression. Luckily, though, my Italian colleague redeemed himself by introducing us to three other tropical fruits (or froo-wits as he called them): the jackfruit, the mangosteen, and the rambutan.

The jackfruit looks uncannily like the durian. The fruit is also large – huge, sometimes – and has a spiky exterior, although nothing like as spiky as the durian

Jacfruit at Nunem

The pods inside are also yellow and squishy

jackfruit inside

jackfruit pulp

But the taste is a universe away from the durian: a delicate sweetness which lingers in the mouth and urges you on to take the next morsel.

As for the mangosteen, ah, what a fruit! From the outside, it looks something like a large plum but with a hard rind.

Mangosteen on tree

When you crack open the rind, you find that it harbours soft, dazzlingly white segments

mangosteen inside-3

which literally taste divine, something surely that was invented by nature only for the gods to eat: juicy, supremely sweet, yet with an acid overtone that holds the sweetness in check, preventing it from becoming cloying.

And finally the rambutan, a wonderfully hairy looking fruit (reminding me always of a certain part of the male anatomy), growing in clusters on the tree

rambutan on tree

When the rind is opened, a glistening small white globe is uncovered

rambutan inside-2

with a taste very much like fresh lychee; not surprising, since the two are relatives. I smuggled a batch of rambutans back to my wife (I’m sure I was not allowed to import them), and they tasted as good at our kitchen table in Italy as they had in the market in Malaysia.

There comes a time of year, in autumn, when street vendors in Beijing begin to sell durian. When that sickening smell wafts over me again, I make a wide detour and occupy my mind’s eye, nose and mouth with the wonders of jackfruit, mangosteen and rambutan.


Durian on tree: [in
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Beijing, 4 December 2013

The Chinese have a a strange relationship with rocks. Go to any self-respecting Chinese garden and somewhere in the twists and turns of its paths you will come nose to nose with a fantastically twisted rock standing there waiting to be admired.

The Forbidden City in Beijing has a specimen which is (of course) very large
rock sculpture forbidden city-2
while a number of the famous gardens in Suzhou have examples more to the human scale.
rock sculpture suzhou-1

rock sculpture suzhou-2
rock sculpture suzhou-3
Admire them they do, the Chinese. When they catch sight of one of these rock sculptures, they will normally break into oohs and aahs, and end up – inevitably, in today’s culture in China – taking a group photo in front of said rock.

The fascination with these rock sculptures extends to internal spaces. It is very common to come across smaller (and sometimes not so smaller) versions in Ministries and other public buildings. Even in the intimate space of the scholar’s study, it was almost de rigeur for the scholar to have a small rock sculpture such as this one
scholar stone
sitting on his desk, among the brushes, ink stand, rice paper, and the rest of his scholarly paraphernalia.

This is not a dead art form. Chinese sculptors are continuing to create these rock sculptures, as this photo from an outdoor exhibition in Chicago attests (in this case, though, while the design principles remain the same, rock no longer seems to be the medium)

rock sculpture in Chicago

I have to assume that Chinese garden designers, like their English counterparts, were bringing the natural landscapes around them, suitably tamed, into their gardens. In the case of the rocks, the landscapes in question must surely be the karst landscapes which are common in many parts of China. This is one such landscape in Yunnan, known as the Stone Forest and famous enough to have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
stone forest yunnan-2
(on an aside, I should note that it was visited by Lisa, of whom I have written earlier, during a trip which she took to Yunnan some six months ago; predictably, her photos of the trip included a large number of her, or her traveling companion, or her tour group, standing among the rocks)

I have to say, I don’t like these rock sculptures. I find the sheer froth of all that twisted stone to be just too much.  Those whorls, those curlicues, those knobs, those piercings, the sheer grotesqueness of it all … Ugh!

This fascination with large rocks has taken on a modern twist. It has become a sign of class for any organization with pretensions of social or economic significance to have a large rock placed before its important buildings, with its name carved on it in classy Chinese characters. These rocks tend to eschew the flowery style, opting instead for a massive ponderousness which no doubt is meant to signal the solidity and power of the organization in question.

rock in front of building-1

I don’t like these sculptures any better. They are just big and heavy with no redeeming features that I can see – the Chinese will sometimes get excited about the script, either because it adheres to the classical cannons of beauty for Chinese characters or because they are copies of some famous Chinese person’s script, but all that leaves me cold.

So you can imagine the relief and pleasure I felt when my wife and I came across this
rock landscape Suzhou IM Pei museum
in the courtyard of a museum in Suzhou, which was designed by the architect I. M. Pei (he of the East Wing of the National Art Gallery in Washington D.C.). Here at last was a rock sculpture in China which I could relate to, spare, simple, clean of line, yet able to evoke beautifully its subject, a range of mountains in the distance.

It is that same spare style which made me fall in love so many years ago with Japanese rock gardens which my wife and I visited in Kyoto during a trip to Japan. Here are pictures of some of the more beautiful of these gardens.
Kyoto Nanzenji rock garden

Kyoto Ryoanji-Rock-Garden

Kyoto Ryogen-in Rock-Garden-2

Kyoto Tofuukuji rock garden-2

Kyoto totekiko rock garden
When I saw these gardens, I vowed that some day, somewhere, I would make my own rock garden. I had to wait 15 years before I got my chance, in Vienna, in a corner of the large balcony which wrapped itself around our apartment. I bought the small stones in a garden store, I found two largish stones in the woods around Vienna (I nearly bust a gut carrying them to the car and then up the stairs to the balcony), and I strategically placed two small plants (also bought in the garden store) behind these stones. I cut saw teeth into a plywood plank to make a rough rake, and then I lovingly raked the small stones around the large stones to create a vision of ripples around rocky islets. The result was really not bad, even if I say so myself.

But we left the apartment, and with death in my heart I had to abandon my rock garden. But some day, somewhere, I’ll make another one, to contemplate it in my old age with peace in my heart.


Rock sculpture in the Forbidden City-2: [in
Rock sculpture Suzhou-1: [in
Rock sculpture Suzhou-2: [in
Rock sculpture Suzhou-3: [in
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Stone forest Yunnan: [in
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Kyoto Nanzenji rock garden: [in
Kyoto Ryoanji: in []
Kyoto Ryogen-in rock gardens:–kyoto-japan-daniel-hagerman.jpg [in–kyoto-japan-daniel-hagerman.html%5D
Kyoto Tofukuji rock garden: [in
Kyoto Totekiko rock garden: [in