Category Archives: Travel

The Other Paris

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The Other Paris – An Illustrated Journey Through
A City’s Poor and Bohemian Past
By Luc Sante
Faber & Faber – £16.99

”Before Haussmann’s reconfiguration of the centre, the neighbourhoods were tightly interwoven; afterward they were more separated, but the classes still met on common ground: on the squares and boulevards. It was said that when cafes began to feature open terraces, the poor discovered what and how to eat from passing by and observing the diners as they ate. And the rich always had the opportunity to absorb the culture of the poor from their markets and entertainments. For that matter, the practice of mixite flourished for at least a century: a house of six or seven stories would feature a shop on the ground floor; the shopkeepers’s dwelling on the mezzanine level; a bourgeois family upstairs from the mezzanine, on the, the ‘noble floor’ then each succeeding story would house people of progressively lesser income. People trudged up as few flights of stairs as they could afford, and as a result, every such house was itself a microcosm of society as a whole.”

When one thinks of Paris, for some idiosyncratically odd and perhaps romantic reason, they invariably conjure up many of the images described and photographed throughout this altogether wonderful book.

To be sure, The Other Paris – An Illustrated Journey Through A City’s Poor and Bohemian Past by Luc Sante is somewhat mesmerising in that it immediately transports the reader unto a place we all – for some reason or other – already know so well. The hustle and bustle, the oft referenced ‘seductive couture and intellectual hauteur’ that makes Paris so intrinsically alluring.

Indeed it’s all here; these 271 pages (excluding Carte de Paris, Notes, Acknowledgements and Index) vividly convey a city for all its captivating worth: ”What an awakening, silent but alive, happens when this city – its streets, houses, sidewalks, lamposts, trees, urinals – is no longer covered like a skin, like a crust, by that grublike swarm of humans rushing to the job machine, but at night comes back to life, swims back to the surface, washes off it s filth, stands back on its feet, scratches itself, sings to break the silence, makes light to rend the darkness. It stretches, relaxes, spreads itself out before me, the solitary walker, the unknown strider, stranding me among its scattered limbs, a vast labyrinth in which I rapturously lose myself, turning every corner, leaving every boulevard at the first left, catching up with the stream once again or passing it by, hopping on one foot, whistling with a but in the corner of my mouth.”

Inundated with a cornucopia of black and white photographs, drawings and reprints of posters (of a long but not necessarily forgotten era), these twelve chapters are as vivid as they are entertaining as they are at times, highly educational.

As The London Review of Books’ Jeremy Harding has since written: ”A poetic guide to the city’s underworld across six centuries, a threepenny opera with a milling crowd of beggars, gangsters, whores and constables, attended by artists, insurrectionaries and intellectuals.”

In and of itself, quite a wide (and unforgiving) gambit; rather like the stunning city of Paris itself.

David Marx

On Glasgow and Edinburgh

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On Glasgow and Edinburgh
By Robert Crawford
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £20.00

And through thy heart, as though a dream
Flows on that black disdainful stream;
All scornfully it flows,
Between the huddled gloom of masts,
Silent as pines unvexed by blasts
‘Tween lamps in streaming rows.
O wondrous sight! O stream of dread!
O long dark river of the dead!

                                                                    ‘Glasgow’/Alexander Smith

Ask almost anyone in Glasgow about how they’d compare themselves to people in Edinburgh, and nine times out of ten, they’ll always come back with: ”we are far more friendlier.” Ask the equivalent in Edinburgh, and they’ll more often than not reply: we are far more cultured.”

As is probably well known, the cities enjoy an infamously internecine relationship; a relationship (if such it can be called) anchored in such other intercity rivalries that persist all around the world to this day – like Barcelona and Madrid in Spain and Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia.

That said, Scotland’s ”sparring metropolises just happen to be so much smaller and closer together – like twins orbiting a common axis.” Clearly, such assessment is forever going to be debatable, although in a round-a-bout sort of way, I have to concur that Glasgow and Edinburgh are reminiscent of twins that orbit ”a common axis.”

On Glasgow and Edinburgh, finds the poet and critic Robert Crawford, divulging all that is attractive and appealing, interesting and idiosyncratic about both cities in equal measure. Hence the book being divided into two parts, wherein its 316 pages (not including Further Reading, List of Illustrations, Credits, Acknowledgements and Index) perceptively assimilate that which is both good and bad. As the author of Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, Richard Holloway writes: ”This book is a beautiful idea lovingly accomplished. It is high time that the old ugly rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh ended, and this book shows us how to do it. Like an inspirational couples counsellor, Robert Crawford suggests that bigamy is the answer: we should learn to love both of these great cities with equal passion. He does, and so do I. You should try it, too.”

As mentioned at the outset, having spent time in both (really terrific) cities, I’d have to concur that people in Glasgow really are among the friendliest I’ve ever come across; while Edinburgh – although clearly not Vienna or Paris – really is something of a cultured confluence of the arts and architecture.

Crawford touches on as much in the chapter, ‘Edinburgh – ‘The Royal Mile: From the Castle to a Song” where he writes: ”Around St. Giles, lawyers come and go as they have done for centuries. Yet for a few weeks each summer since 1947, the Edinburgh Festival has put a very different complexion on things. Once the Festival was all opera and high culture; several of T. S. Eliot’s plays were premiered there. Gradually, however, the official Festival has been engorged by its huge ”Fringe,” which features all sorts of performances, ranging from stand-up comedy to students’ Shakespeare.”

Having spent an entire month acting in a play at the Fringe, I would in all honesty have to say there’s a huge element of much ado about nothing attached to the Fringe.

That’s to say, Edinburgh stands on its own; it really doesn’t need some of the crass injection that the Fringe unfortunately has to offer. After all, ”the Castle Rock called Edinburgh into being. Ever since the first few houses clustered round the castle, no city in the world has had a more spectacular medieval centrepiece. Once crucial for defence, surveillance, and maintaining order, the Castle remains a British military barracks but is now principally for looking at. Unfailingly photogenic, it still appears, as England’s John Taylor put it in his Pennyles Pilgrimage of 1618, ”so strongly grounded, bounded, and founded, that by force of man it can never bee confounded.””

So utterly readable and exceedingly enjoyable, On Glasgow and Edinburgh is more critically astute than a Will Self trouble-shooter.

David Marx

Finland

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Finland
By Andy Symington & Catherine Le Nevez
Lonely Planet – £15.99

It’s sometimes possible to delve into a travel guide and come away with an instinctive feel for the place under investigation. In this instance, Lonely Planet’s Finland has instilled a quintessential feel of what the nation clearly is and what it has to offer. This is immediately made clear in ‘Welcome to Finland’ on page four’s ‘Call of the Wild’: ”The Finland you encounter will depend on the season of your visit, but whatever the month, the call of the wilderness is a siren song not to be resisted.”

The term ‘siren song,’ is a relative and rather pronounced term, as in a round-a-bout kid of way, it implores the reader to not in any way be reticent in packing their bags – as the editors continue: ”There’s something pure in the Finnish air and spirit that’s really vital and exciting; it’s an invitation to get out and active year-round.”

It’s hard to argue with such an acutely, well considered invitation; but then again, we are talking Lonely Planet, a publisher renowned for simply excellent travel guides. This up to date, number one best selling guide to Finland being no exception. Each of its 301 pages (excluding Index) has something enlightening and informative to offer both the casual traveller and the curious investigator.

This is partly due to the book’s instinctive layout: subject, why and when to go?, map, explanation, getting around, activities, festivals and events, sleeping, drinking and night-life, entertainment, shopping and finally, information (which includes numbers, addresses and websites). Once said forthcoming linearity is comfortably embraced, the reader/traveller can forget all/any navigational issues, and get on with not only enjoying this most enjoyable of books, but Finland as a whole. A country, which, as Symington reminds us, is made up of: ”cutting edge urbanity, technology and design meet epic stretches of wilderness in Europe’s deep north. Summers of endless light balance freezing but magical winters, with outdoor activity a must year-round.

From the country’s capital Helsinki to Turku and the South Coast, from Karelia to Lapland, Finland traverses all (travel) areas of the country one essentially needs to know: Finland Today, History, The Sami, Finnish Lifestyle and Culture, Finnish Design, The Arts and of course, Food, Drink and a Survival Guide (which consists of Transport, Language and numerous maps).

Admittedly, a few more photographs wouldn’t have gone amiss, but in all honesty, the book really does stand on it own – without or without a menagerie of photographs.

David Marx

Berlin Tales

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Berlin Tales – Stories translated by Lyn Marven
Edited by Helen Constantine
Oxford University Press – £9.99

These seventeen stories traverse the effervescent city of Berlin, both past and present, in such a beguiling way – that one’s compelled to not only read more, but investigate the city for real.

By way of miniaturist story telling, most sides of the German capital – from the decadence and the modernity of the Weimar Republic right through to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – are marvellously captured and juxtaposed throughout Berlin Tales.

While many of the stories have been translated for the first time, almost all come across as having lost none of their initial panache, individuality nor wit. The nigh photographic, rapid and random snapshot travelogue that is ‘My Berlin’ (by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar) being a perfect example.

It’s so concise, it’s almost poetic: ”At Zoo station I waved to all the buses going past. I was in freedom and was pleased about the rain. I thought, Berlin has waited for me for nine years. It was as if back then when I returned to Istanbul, Berlin had frozen like a photo, to wait for me – with the long, tall trees, with the Gedachniskirche, with the double-decker buses, with the corner pubs. Berlin Kindl beer, the crosses on the beer mats. Walls. Checkpoint Charlie. U-Bahn. S-Bahn. Cinema on Steinplatz. Abshied von gestern (Yesterday Girl). Alexander Kluge. Bockworst sausages. The Brecht theatre Berlin Ensemble. Arturo Ui. Canals. The Peacock Island. Tramps in the stations. Pea soup. Lonely women in Cafe Kranzler. Black Forest gateau. Workers from different countries. Spaghetti. Greeks. Cumin-Turks. Cafe Kase. Telephone dances. Bullet holes in house walls. Cobblestones. Curried sausage. White bodies waiting for the sun at Lake Wannsee. Police dogs. East German police searchlights. Dead train tracks, grass growing between them. House notices: ‘In the interests of all residents children are forbidden to play games.’ Stations left behind in East Berlin which the West underground trains pass through without stopping. A solitary East-policeman on the platform. Solinka soup. Stuyvesand cigarettes. Rothandle cigarettes. Signs:’Achtung Sie verlassen den Amerikanischem Sektor / Warning you are leaving the American sector.’ Jewish cemetery in East Berlin. Ducks on Lake Wannsee. A bar with music from the 1940s, old women dancing with women. Broilers.”

This one story alone is a more than jubilant, topsy-turvy traipse through everything that Berlin once was (and to a certain degree, still is). It’s colourful, majestic and well-paced, not to mention almost serene in its observation; which, along with such other short stories as ‘Seen from the Window’ by Siegried Kracauer (”They are not compositions like Pariser Platz or La Concorde which owe their existence to a single architectural conception, rather they are creations of chance […]”) and ‘Gina Regina’ by Ulrike Draesner (”an intermezzo of sugar bun and sex”), are a delight to both read and truly behold.

And like the city itself, investigate further.

David Marx

Amsterdam

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Amsterdam – A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
By Russell Shorto
Little, Brown – £25.00

Amsterdam always has, and always will hold a particularly special place in my heart. That my mother was born in the city and I spent so much of my childhood there, still resonates to such a degree that it’s far more of a home-town (to quote Bruce Springsteen) than that where I was actually born.

And what a vibrant, wonderful city it is too; which, from a historical perspective at least, is perfectly captured in Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam – A History of the World’s Most Liberal City.

Admittedly, it might be due to my own relationship with the city, but these ten chapters simply flew by. In all honesty, I found parts of the book almost un-put-down-able; but again, this may partially be due to wanting to read about the city of my childhood through another’s eyes.

It may also be partially due to the fact that Shorto’s all round acute, very considered approach, makes so much political sense: ”So while this is a book about a city, it is also about an idea. Amsterdam’s history belongs to all of us, for those of us who live in Western democratic societies – wherever we place ourselves on the political spectrum – are all liberals, who depend on liberalism as a foundation of our lives […]. My weekly bicycle trip in my Amsterdam neighbourhood bears out James Baldwin’s observation that ”people are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.””

So right from the very outset – the above quote is from chapter one – one instinctively knows that one’s in for a read that’s as analytical and defined, as it is revealing and dare I say it, persuasive. The latter of which is all the more clarified in the third chapter (‘The Alteration’), wherein Shorto so sensibly writes of William of Orange’s initial entry into Amsterdam – which in itself, triggered a huge transformation: ”In this period, the northern Dutch provinces would sign the Union of Utrecht, a de facto constitution that, following on the decades of slaughter in the name of religion, would guarantee freedom of conscience. It would be a first draft of the concept of religious freedom and, beyond that, of the legal notion of equality.”

Naturally, no book on Amsterdam would suffice without touching on painting; the countless mijsterwerks of Rembrandt van Rijn especially, of whom the author writes: ”Rembrandt’s fame as an artist had to do with technical brilliance and an inventive, theatrical approach. He was a master realist. But it’s fair to say that what truly struck, even stunned, his contemporaries was his seeming to have turned his subjects inside out. He didn’t just paint what they looked like; he painted who they were.”

Amsterdam really is a necessary read for a number of reasons.

Apart from the fact that it’s well written, it’s enlightening and brave and touches upon all right issues that are so entwined with this most glorious of cities. From history to philosophy, Calvinism to Liberalism, sex, art, diamonds, Spinoza and John Lennon’s bed-in; it’s all here in one fantabulous book. A book described by the author of 1491 and 1493 Charles C Mann as: ”Amsterdam is a small place that casts a big shadow. As Russell Shorto shows in this smart, elegant book, culture and geography have conspired to thrust the city into the midst of our day’s most important debates… Not only is this a wonderfully readable account of the city, it is also a history of how the Dutch invented – and sometimes failed to live up to – today’s concepts of liberty and tolerance.”

The fount of liberalism is herein truly testified. As is the glittering jewel of Amsterdam itself. A great book.

David Marx

The New York Nobody Knows

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The New York Nobody Knows –
Walking 6,000 Miles in the City
By William B. Helmreich
Princeton University Press – £19.95

In 2009, Running Press published New York 400, a visual history of America’s, if not the world’s, greatest city – to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival along the river that continues to bear his name. It’s a fascinating book that alluringly invites one to investigate the Big Apple from that of a visual perspective.

This book on the other hand, delves unto a far grittier and deeper premise, by literally investigating the city, borough by borough, street by street. And I have to say, having lived in New York for a number of years, I know first hand that walking a mere three streets in any direction, is a lot more acute, radical, potentially leery and conspicuous, than walking three streets in any direction in say London, Berlin or Paris (where I have also spent a significant amount of time). The prime reason being, three blocks away in New York, can account for an entirely different world, which, I suspect, constitutes for author William B. Helmreich having undertaken such a mammoth task to begin with.

Mammoth being the operative word here, for New York is as dense and diverse a city, as it is chaotic, exotic and simply brilliant, and this is resolutely pronounced in The New York Nobody Knows – Walking 6,000 Miles in the City’s Introduction: ”There are too many ways to analyse the city of New York. One approach is to use its geographical division into boroughs and neighbourhoods and carefully examine each of them. Another approach is to think of the city in terms of categories – Asians, whites, New Yorkers, Brooklynites, organizations, small stores, sports, seniors, children. The city can also be evaluated in terms of issues – immigration, gentrification, crime, and education. Yet another method is to look at New York City as a patchwork of physical spaces. These include streets, buildings, walls, statues, playgrounds, and memorials. All of these lines of inquiry are employed in this book, because each one helps us to better comprehend this complex metropolis.”

Halfway through this book, one does inadvertently find oneself coming to terms with and comprehending New York City in such a way that might not otherwise be possible via other publications. For how else might one find oneself in such a similarly, quixotic and dare I say it, prized persuasion?

As Phillip Lopate, author of Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan is quoted as saying: ”Helmreich has walked everywhere and read everything pertinent on New York, and has many astute observations about both the essential spirit of the Big Apple and its rapid changes.”

Along with topographical and infrastructure changes, it’s New York’s inexorable social changes that ultimately account for it’s magnetic allure and accountability; segments of which are touched on in chapter two (‘Selling Hot Dogs, Planting Flowers, and Living the Dream – The Newcomers‘): ”[…] groups are aware of their past differences but may wish to seize a fortuitous opportunity to try to repair them. And in that sense the city becomes a hothouse laboratory for conflict resolution, demonstrating that in another context warring groups can live together in harmony. It’s a view that reinforces the most optimistic hopes of the immigrants – namely, that they can leave their age-old conflicts behind them and start over again. Whatever the individual motivations, by the time second-generation immigrants have reached adulthood, they have been here for most of their lives, and cannot relate to conflicts with which they have no real familiarity. At the same time, if group members are taught prejudice, it may take hold.”

Such clear-cut analysis, surely warrants another book in its own right?

Returning to the book in hand however, my one and only gripe is that I wish the collection of twenty-nine, black and white photographs appeared in the book as they were written about, rather than merely being placed together in its centre. As by the time one stumbles upon them, it’s all to easy to forget what they’re in reference to.

But other than that, The New York Nobody Knows really does (socially) traverse the New York nobody knows; while in so doing, invariably opening a menagerie of colourful doors I suspect most people didn’t even know existed. Myself wholeheartedly included.

David Marx

Honorable Bandit – A Walk Across Corsica

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Honorable Bandit – A Walk Across Corsica
By Brian Bouldrey
Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press –  $26.95

Brian Bouldrey teaches creative writing at Northwestern University in the USA, has already written six books and edited several others; including three volumes of Best American Gay Fiction. So in coming to read Honourable Bandit – A Walk Across Corsica (my first of his books), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – but somehow had a feeling it would probably be anchored within the parameters of good writing.

Suffice to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

A textured, snapshot view of the Corsican hiking trail through Bouldrey and his German friend, Petra’s eyes, does indeed, make for an interesting, if not overtly American travelogue; that is both thoughtful and philosophical. Thoughtful, because of the gentle considerdness of the writing, philosophical, because of some of the issues contained within the actual writing: ”If you steal a loaf of bread, you go to jail; if you steal a railroad, you’re a senator” (‘Why I Walk – Walk-Off’); ””I have walked myself into my best thoughts,” said Soren Kiegegaard, ”and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it;”” ”I do my best thinking in crowds, oddly enough, at the symphony or during a play. Dull plays are best for thinking. My playbill is always coated with notes scrawled in the dark concert hall or theatre, sad inscrutable scribble, and usless once the lights are up. When walking, the only thing that can save me from my own shallow thoughts is civilized conversation with a fellow walker.
”Shut up, stupid German girl.”
”Shut up, stupid American boy.”” (‘Jet Lag’).

Comfortable, colourful and simultaneously witty, Honourable Bandit is a pleasant and slightly provocative read, that, although perhaps a little too opinionated for its own good (although said dictum could just as readily be applied to most writing); is still nevertheless distinctive enough to linger.

As Tim Miller – he who wrote 1001 Beds has been quoted as saying: ”A remarkable achievement. Deeply felt, humorous, and extremely wise, Honorable Bandit takes the reader on a journey across Corsica, but even more takes us on a charged – Dantean, at times – journey that explores the nuanced corners of life: our most intimate infernos, purgatories, and paradiosos, all on one island.”

To a degree, I cannot help but agree – as there really is a very deep sense of thought taking place amid these 234 pages. As for Dantean thinking, I’ll leave you with the following excerpt (from ‘Lammergeier’): ”I must rephrase my wonder – how is it that beautiful things come out of ugly things? There is Dante again, betraying his own personal hatred, his own voceru, until it turned into lyric in The Inferno. Picasso’s Guernica transforming genocide, if not redeeming it. What art, after all, isn’t begotten of pain? Could something beautiful come out of all the terrorism, all our military maneuvers? And who will do the transforming?”

David Marx