A suitcase of memories

Memories of childhood. Here is the introduction to a travel book, “CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME”, which I published several years ago:

charlie

The attic of my parents’ house in north London contained a number of old Revelation suitcases. These were plastered with ageing colourful paper stickers bearing the names of shipping lines and also of places such as: Cape Town, Southampton, Harwich, New York, Montreal, and Rotterdam. Had they been animate and able to speak, what tales they would have been able to tell!

If, as a child, I had become a suitcase, I too would have been covered with an exotic assortment of stickers including some of those mentioned above. But, I did not become a piece of baggage, and the stickers that I carry are not made of paper. Instead, they are memories stuck in various compartments of my brain. Unlike the inanimate objects in the attic in the eaves of our house, I am able to speak: to divulge my impressions of the places that I visited in my childhood; to describe the remarkable people I met in those places; and to reveal the unusual experiences that resulted from travelling with my learned father and my talented mother.

This book contains my memories of the holidays and trips that I took with my parents, mostly during the first eighteen years of my life. They are worth relating because they differed markedly from the kinds of holidays that most people took during the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than exposing their children to the sun on the beach, my parents preferred to expose my sister and me to cultural experiences that, they hoped, would benefit us in the future. This was due to my father’s great interest in the history of art, which resulted from my mother being an artist. Whereas now I appreciate what they did for me then, I did not always do so at the time.

Please join me now as I examine the stickers in my memory – the souvenirs of many years gone past. Let them reveal to you how interesting school holidays can be even if they only include the rarest of glimpses of the sea and an almost total absence of ‘child-friendly’ activities.

These memories of my childhood travels are illustrated with photographs, all of which were taken by me or with one of my own cameras unless otherwise stated. I was given my first simple camera when I was about 6 or 7 years old. It was not given to me by my parents, who never took photographs, but by my uncle Sven who was a keen photographer. His grandfather had been a pioneer of professional photography, as I will describe below. I will begin my narrative by choosing a label that could have been pasted on to my suitcase of reminiscences during the late 1950s or any time in the 1960s. It bears the name “Soho”. I have chosen it amongst all of the others because it provides a good introduction to my mother, who affected so much of what we did as a family and what will be related in this book.

 

CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME

(ISBN: 9781291845051)

is available at:

Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com , and on Kindle

A country that exists no more

OHR 78 OHRID Sunsetting over Albania

 

The picture depicts the sun setting over Albania as viewed from the Yugoslav shore of Lake Ohrid. When I took the picture, I was standing in Yugoslavia. Now the sun has set forever over Yugoslavia: that country exists no more. What made me interested in Yugoslavia and the Balkans? Here is my reply.

 

Hergé, the Belgian creator of the cartoon character Tintin, must be held responsible for my fascination with the Balkans. From the age of 7, when my father first presented me with one of his books, I became fascinated by the drawings of Syldavia and Borduria in some of the albums. These were two imaginary countries that the Belgian cartoonist invented to depict what he had seen during his visits to the Balkans. They attracted me than all of the other exotic settings of Tintin’s adventures.

My parents were fundamentally opposed to any totalitarian regime, be it right or left wing. They refused to venture behind the so-called Iron Curtain. Furthermore, they were even reluctant to buy anything made there on the basis that any purchase would give financial support to a regime that opposed the capitalist way of life. Their avoidance of countries, which were under the control of communists, and my fascination by Hergé’s cartoon drawings of south-eastern Europe made me yearn to visit them. As soon as I was old enough to travel alone, I gave in to my yearning.

I chose to visit Yugoslavia first for two reasons. First of all, it seemed more accessible than its neighbours; visas were not required and it appeared to have a less oppressive regime than some of the other Balkan countries. Secondly, I was already becoming fascinated by its mysterious neighbour, the tiny hermetically sealed country of Albania. I believed that by visiting certain areas in Yugoslavia I would manage to catch close-up glimpses of this almost completely impenetrable place.

My early visits to Yugoslavia, which commenced in the late 1960s, were made on my own or with other visitors to the country. These were fascinating enough to make me want to see more, but differed little from simple tourism.  Soon, I began meeting Yugoslavs. Many of them, especially in Belgrade and Sarajevo, became good friends. My visits to their country began to assume more of a social nature than simply touristic. I believe that as the years passed and I made ever more visits, I began to experience the country more profoundly, and with far greater affection, than the average tourist. My book “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ” contains a trail of memories of the experiences I enjoyed whilst visiting a country that no longer exists.

 

“SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ”

is available as a paperback: HERE and on Amazon Kindle

 

Be reasonable

Booking

Last year, we were booking our daughter into a simple home-stay by the sea in Kerala, India. While we sat in the owner’s office, I spotted a framed certificate issued by the Booking.com website. It showed that the home-stay had earned a 9.8 out of 10 satisfaction rating. I congratulated the owner for achieving this. Sadly, he told me, the latest rating was now 9.4.

“That’s still pretty good,” I said.

“Maybe,” the owner replied, “but it keeps going down. The problem is the Indian guests who stay at my place.”

“Why?” I asked.

“When foreigners come and pay £10 per night, they know what to expect,” the owner began, “but when Indians come here they expect accomodation worth £100 even when they are only paying £10”

“The problem is,” he continued, ” that Indians arrive expecting included breakfast, a swimming pool, and other facilities, for which they would usually have to pay £100 or more. These are not available at £10 per night. So, when they write their reviews on Booking.com, they give us a low rating, which is not fair given how little they have to pay. These low ratings bring down my overall rating.”

I sympathised with the man, who then admitted:

“I would rather have no Indians staying here. I prefer the foreigners because they know what to expect of budget accommodation.”

When I stay at places that I have booked on Booking.com, I tend to be over generous with my rating unless there is something very seriously bad about the place. Also, when choosing where to stay, I am not put off by ratings of just over 6 out of 10. I have often found hotels with lowish ratings to have been under-rated because people have been over-critical about minor defects.

So, when you next rate a place you have visited, try to be fair and reasonable with your ratings.

Train to Florence

Settebello_power_car

 

Until I was about 17 years old, my parents used to take my sister and I for long trips to Florence and Venice every year. Often, we would fly from London to Milan, and then take a train to Florence. Frequently, our reserved seats were occupied by other passengers, who would only shift elsewhere when we had got the carriage’s conductor to intervene on our behalf.

Here is an extract from my reminiscences of childhood travel in Italy from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me“:

“Once we were seated in our reserved seats, we began to enjoy the 3 hour journey to Florence. Within minutes of entering our carriage or compartment, my mother would begin to strike up a conversation with whoever was sitting nearby. My mother and two of her three brothers, one of whom lived in London and the other in Cape Town, were always happy to initiate conversations with complete strangers. Her only sister and other brother were less inclined to do this. Mostly, our fellow passengers were Italian, but once I recall sharing a compartment with an elderly American lady who was considerably older than my parents. After a few minutes of friendly conversation, she revealed that her son was none other but the world-famous violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001), who was born 3 months before my mother.

Occasionally we were lucky enough to travel on a Settebello train. These high speed streamlined electric trains, which plied between Milan and Rome and stopped briefly in Florence, were the pride of Italian State Railways. At each end of the train there was an observation saloon. The driver’s cabins were located above these. When travelling in the front observation cabin, one experienced a driver’s view of the track ahead. As a child who loved trains, sitting in these was a great treat for me. I still gain great enjoyment sitting at the front of trams and trains. One of the attractions of London’s Docklands Light Railway, which weaves its way through London’s former docklands and other reclaimed parts of the East End, is that there are seats at the front of the train where a driver would normally be seated had the train not been automated.

About an hour away from Florence after passing through Bologna, the train entered a long tunnel. Even the fastest trains took almost half an hour to travel through this. Soon after we emerged from it we sped through the town of Prato, and then the suburbs of Florence (Firenze in Italian) began. I knew that after we had passed the marshalling yards at Firenze Rifredi, we would soon be entering the huge terminal, Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella.

 

Charlie Chaplin waved to me is available from:

Amazon, bookfinder.com, lulu.com, and on Kindle

 

Picture: Front of a Settebello train showing the observation lounge and the driver’s cabin above it. Source: it.wikipedia.org

Art gallery

Bangalore in south India is not blessed with many tourist attractions. I will describe one of them, which gives me great pleasure.

Almost 10 years ago, a branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) opened in Bangalore. Even if you have little interest in modern art this place is worth seeing. Part of the collection, which changes regularly, is housed in the former Manikyavelu Palace, a 19th century edifice which has been superbly restored.

The palace is linked to an elegantly simple contemporary building in which some of the permanent collection is displayed. The collection includes works mainly by Indian artists but there are also a few by European artists. Most of the artworks were created in the 20th and 21st centuries. There is a good selection of paintings by Bengali artists.

The new building also houses well curated temporary exhibitions. Currently, there is a wonderful exhibition of paintings and drawings by the artist Khanderao, who was born in Gulbarga. His early works were beautifully executed topographical scenes. He is also a superp portraitist. Like other great modern artists, for example Picasso, Khanderao has moved into abstraction, which he deals with beautifully.

A water feature separates the palace and its modern extension from another contemporary complex. This includes an auditorium, a library, a café, and a gallery shop.

The verdant gardens of the NGMA contain several modern sculptures.

The NGMA is, in my opinion, one of the loveliest attractions that Bangalore offers visitors and residents alike.

Dentistry and dictatorship

Between 1944 and 1991, Albania was ruled by a Stalinist dictatorship under the leadership of Enver Hoxha until his death in 1985, and then under Ramiz Alia. The country was even more isolated from the rest of the world than North Korea is today. It was impossible for individuals to visit the country unless they were members of a tour group. In May 1984, I joined one of these groups and spent a most interesting fortnight in the country. Our hosts, the state-run Albturist company, made sure that we had little or no contact with Albanians other than our tour guides and driver, who was a trusted Communist party member. Our hosts hoped that we would only see what the authorities wanted us to see. Their aim was to make us come away from Albania feeling that its repressive regime was one to be admired. I was the only dentist in our group. I managed to gain a tiny insight into the state of dentistry in Albania. The following extracts from my book “Albania on my Mind” reveal something of what I learned. ‘Aferdita’ and ‘Eduard’, mentioned below, were our Albanian tour guides. Although their job included keeping us ‘under control’ and away from other Albanians, they were curious about the world beyond Albania’a watertight borders.

ALBDENT 0

Our tour began in the northern city of Shkodër.

“Our coach headed out of Shkodër along the main road leading southwards. Once we were out of town, Aferdita delivered the first of her brief daily lectures. Every day, she treated us to a discourse on one of a variety of different aspects of life in Albania. The one that I can recall best was on the subject of medicine. She informed us, whilst we were travelling towards Sarandë some days well into our tour, that since the advent of the communists not only had malaria been eradicated, but also tuberculosis and syphilis. After extolling the virtues of her country’s medical facilities, she offered to answer any questions that had arisen in our minds as a result of her lecture. No one said anything. Then, Julian, our British chaperone, knowing already that the young lady doctor travelling with us was a reticent person, asked me, the dentist on board, to pose a question. I asked whether antibiotics were readily available in Albania. My reason for asking this was that I believed that the country, which was clearly trying to be totally self-reliant, would have been reluctant to import costly pharmaceuticals. Aferdita replied indignantly: “Why, of course they are.”

And then, spreading her hands wide apart, she exclaimed:

“When we reach the next town, I will get you a packet of antibiotics this large.”

Sadly, she never fulfilled this unusually generous offer.”

ALBDENT 1

Flash flood in Shkodër, 1984

“After an unexceptional lunch, I roamed around the streets of Shkodër. I came across a small public garden, which was dominated by a chunky statue of Joseph Stalin. Even 30 years after his death, Albania continued to honour him. It was the only country in Europe still revering that illustrious Georgian. There was even a town, Qyteti Stalin (now known by its pre-Communist name as ‘Kuçovë’), named in his memory, but we did not visit it. I am pleased that I saw this statue, because although I did see many other statues on our trip, they were mostly depictions of Enver Hoxha.

I discovered a bookshop near to Stalin’s monument, and being addicted to such establishments, I entered. I was surprised to find an Albanian textbook of dentistry prominently displayed there. Though crudely illustrated with line-drawings, I could make out that it was quite up-to-date. To the evident surprise of the shop’s staff, I purchased it and another dental book. I still treasure these two unusual souvenirs from Shkodër.”

ALBDENT 2

Backstreet in Gjirokastër

Later during our tour, we visited the historic city of Gjirokastër. Its hotel, like others in Albania, was equipped with a night club, where we, the foreign guests, were entertained by musical ensembles in splendid isolation: no Albanians apart from our guides and a waiter were permitted to enter the club. Incidentally, wherever our group ate in Albania, we were isolated by screens or curtains from other (i.e. Albanian) diners. I later learnt that this was because in 1984 there were great food shortages in the country. We were well-fed, but it was important that Albanians were not able to see that.

“That evening after dinner, a number of us sat with Aferdita and Eduart in the hotel’s night club. Each of the hotels in which we stayed had one of these. With the exception of our two guides and the musicians who performed in them, these clubs were out of bounds for Albanians. This evening we were entertained by a small band that played western pop music, mainly tunes originally performed by the Beatles. The noisy background of these clubs provided our two young guides with opportunities to ask us about life beyond their country’s tightly sealed borders. However, it was clear that Aferdita was trying to eavesdrop on Eduart and vice-versa. As the musicians strummed away in the semi-gloom of the club in Gjirokastër, Aferdita turned to me, rolled her lower lip away from her teeth, and asked my opinion of her gums. She wanted to know if they had been treated properly. I told her that I was unable to give her an opinion in such poor light.

The following morning, I spotted some tubes of Albanian toothpaste on display in a locked glass display case near the hotel’s main entrance. I tried to communicate to the receptionist (who did not understand English) that I wished to purchase a tube. I used to collect toothpastes from wherever I travelled and was curious to taste its contents. Whilst I was doing this, Aferdita appeared, and asked me what I wanted. I told her. She explained my desire to the receptionist, and moments later I had become the proud owner of a tube of Albanian dentifrice.”

ALBDENT 3

Many years later…

“In 2001, long after my trip to Albania, I began working in a dental practice in west London. Many of my patients were, and still are, refugees from the places in the world, which are stricken by military and political conflicts. Algerians, Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds, Palestinians, Eritreans, and many other others who have fled their far-off disturbed homes sit in my surgery and reveal the ravages that life has inflicted on their teeth. During the terrible conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, many of my patients hailed from Kosovo, and usually spoke poor English in addition to their native Albanian. Many were the smiles that I elicited from them when I quoted the old party slogans, undoubtedly poorly pronounced, and wished them ‘Mir u pafshim’ instead of ‘Goodbye’ at the end of their appointments.”

 

ALBANIA ON MY MIND” by Adam YAMEY may be purchased from Amazon, lulu.com, bookdepository.com, your bookshop. It is also available as a Kindle