The Eagle

Eagle Hunter Bloody Beak

The golden eagle stands in a ditch, tied to a pole by a 10-inch length of rawhide around its legs. “What’s its name?” I ask Bigboulat, our leather-faced host. “Her name. She is Palapan, little baby” he says. “She is like a daughter to me.”

The eagle’s ditch lies in the centre of the nomads’ yurt camp, between the sky and the steppe, long grasses waving gently in the wind. Nomads hunt with eagles in winter. These animals cannot be completely tamed; their hunter instinct doesn’t abate during the summer months. The eagle looks around, carefully, for prey; for a field mouse, or one of the many hay-coloured marmots scurrying in and out of burrows. As soon as she spots something, she lunges, arching her body upwards, ready to take off, but the rope is tight around her legs, bringing her back to the stake. “I have to keep her tied. Or she would fly away, and wouldn’t return for weeks” says Bigboulat.

He has built a turf tussock for the bird to roost. The eagle is drawn towards it by the rope, after her failed attempt at freeing herself. She rips apart, gashing, clawing, tearing, slashing at the tussock, until there’s nothing left. Bigboulat understands. He approaches the eagle; exchanges the rawhide strip for a longer rope. In a flash, the eagle is in the air, swoops down. I see her perfection of wildness. She is infallible. She is queen.

The eagle holds a small marmot on the ground, pins it down with her curled, slate-coloured talons. They are eye to eye for an instant; the marmot is still alive, barely. Suddenly, the eagle gives a loud screech, flaring her golden neck feathers. She stares at us, shrieking, tongue sticking out, the prey safely tucked in her claws. Men around us are belittled by her fierce gaze, look at her with deference from the top of their horses, then ride off over the hills, across a land with no boundaries.

Eagle Hunter Fast Food

Then, a few fast beak movements, the marmot is skinned and gutted. The eagle eats the flesh chunk by bloody chunk; she dangles the marmot’s innards from her beak, stringy purple and grey, then gulps them down. The skin is tossed on the side, discarded.

She climbs on the mound where her roosting tussock used to be, now destroyed. It happens all the time in summer; Bigboulat says he will make her another one. I look at the eagle from up close; her downy, delicate feathers, swirling around her eyes, the underside of her neck soft and fluffy, the sharp-looking feathers on her shoulders, looking as if they were carved from wood. The feathers’ colours change with the sun; brown becomes caramel, golden is turned into cream, buttery white.

Above, eagles ride the thermals over the hills, towards the snow-streaked peaks of the Altai Mountains, on the horizon. I give her a last look, just as she looks at me. Or through me. For an instant, I feel her longing for the wild, open skies. I feel the wind brushing her feathers, as she sweeps towards the quarry, the same wind on the nomads’ faces as they ride across the steppe. The same yearning to hunt.  Eagle Hunter Flared Head

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Mamuthones and Issohadores

Kiddie in the Middle“I can’t let you in. I can’t just let anyone in. Sorry.” says Basilio, one of the eight issohadores of Mamoiada. “It is more than getting dressed. It is a metamorphosis”  he adds, as he slams the door of the Mamuthones and Issohadores Association in my face.

I am not allowed to enter the courtyard, where the preparation of the masked characters is taking place. I sneak towards a door left ajar, and glimpse moments of a century-old ritual, pervaded with superstition. The men, dressed but not yet masked, circle around a bonfire, lie on the floor, help each other strapping bells on their backs. The straps are pulled so tightly that some men seem to be about to collapse from the weight of the bells, up to 40

kilos, and lack of oxygen. Bells are arranged, straps buckled and unbuckled, crossed together. Men jump and shake their backs again and again, bells jangle. When the sound is right, the mask is worn. They are no longer men. They have become mamuthones.

The day of Sant’Antonio, January 17th, is one of the most popular festivals in Sardinia; the saint is the protector of animals and fire, and each year bonfires are lit to symbolise purification and renewal, to ward off the cold winter and welcome spring.

In the village of Mamoiada, the bonfires of Sant’Antonio offer a supernatural background to another event, a lot more important to local people; the first yearly procession of mamuthones and issohadores, masked characters unique to the town. Smoke billows in twirls from the fires, a sleety rain falls, interspersed with bright spells; then a double-arched rainbow appears, crossing the mountainous expanse east of town.

Many Sardinians will tell you Sardinia is not Italy. Here, people speak another language, completely unintelligible to Italian speakers; some refer to Italy as ‘the continent’, with a mixture of indifference and contempt. Barbagia is another place altogether. Far from the beaches of coastal Sardinia, Barbagia is a tough place of mountains and shepherds. The name of the region itself derives from Barbaria, barbarians, the name given by the Romans to the people of the land, proud and elusive, who never subjected to their rule.

I am no longer in Italy; I am in Barbagia. Mamoiada lies in the heart of the region, tucked among a mountain massif riddled with streams and caves, where nomadic shepherding is still practiced.

The village is surrounded by squat, windswept mountains, covered by gnarled olive trees and myrtle bushes. The wind blows, thick with sleet. This is an isolated land. A place where the harsh territory allowed people to preserve their culture, language and tradition.

Mamoiada’s masked characters are an example. Mamuthones wear grotesque wooden masks, painted black. They are all handmade by local artisans, all different to one another. Some have giant hooked noses, others have protruding foreheads, pointed chins and grimacing expressions, lending mamuthones a spooky, devilish appearance. They wear vests of dark sheep fur and huge copper bells, arranged like tortoise shells on their backs. Issohadores are their lighter counterpart, vivacious and cheerful; dressed in a red tunic with a black bandolier, an embroidered, fringed shawl tied around the hips, a black hat held together with a colourful bow.

When the characters reach the main bonfire, in front of Mamoiada’s largest church, the procession starts. Twelve ma

muthones in two rows, surrounded by eight issohadores. Their movement has been defined by anthropologists as a ‘danced procession’, because of the grave yet musical, rhythmical pace it follows. Mamuthones move slowly, with heavy steps, as if they were chained. Their backs are curved under the weight of the bells, under the coarse vests, under the grimacing masks. Rhythmically, they shake their right shoulder, the left foot advances, bells clang in unison. Issohadores move with agile, deft steps, surrounding the darker figures

as if they were hoarding them, guiding them, then confronting them. Their function is complementary; mamuthones do not interact with the crowd, while issohadores skip across the road, catching young women with the soha, the slim reed rope after which they are named. One issohadore, at the head of the group, has the function of setting the pace of the procession; every now and then he lifts one arm, then waves, the mamuthones answer shaking their bells three times, in rapid succession.

The public looks on speechless, silent and composed, as if they were assisting to a religious procession; looking scared, then between awe and bewilderment, hypnotised by the slow, yet imposing gait. There is no joy; the atmosphere wavers between austere and otherworldly. No one dares speak. The parade continues, from early afternoon to late night, repeating the dance at each of the thirty-eight bonfires in Mamoiada.

The origin of mamuthones is unknown. They have been in Mamoiada as long as anyone remembers; it is likely that the town itself has taken its name from them. Now, they are a symbol of Mamoiada’s identity. “We were born to be mamuthones” said Augusto, standing with his nine year-old son in a small mamuthone costume. “The first time, he was eighteen months old”.

The pace of mamuthones is seen by some scholars as an interpretation of the pre-Christian limping dance in honour of Dionysus, the god of vegetation, that each year died in winter, and was born again in spring as the grass in the fields, bringing rain and fertility. According to this theory, this is why the first mamuthones procession of the year is held on the day of Sant’Antonio, celebration of spring.

Other scholars see the Mamuthones as an animal metaphor; the bells on their back are the bond between shepherd and animal, their shared destiny of working in the fields, of roaming the mountains.

Mamuthones have also been defined as a representation of the collective soul of Sardinia. The bells symbolise the yoke of subsequent dominations, from the Romans to the Vandals, from the Piedmontese to the Italians. The cavorting issohadores in their exotic costume are the invaders; the shuffling mamuthones, bent under their load, are the Sardinians, prisoners, forever shaking the bells of their pain and suffering.

At the end of the parade, in the dead of night and bitter cold, the characters return to their association, to undress, become men again. Then the party begins, wine flowing until morning. This time, everybody is welcome to join in.

Shake It Up

For more Mamuthones and Issohadores images go to

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nickmarghe/sets/72157632933743194/

On Community Based Travel

I had done my homework. I had learnt to avoid the Chiang Mai area in Northern Thailand, described by leading guidebooks as “considerably over trekked”. Like most travellers to South East Asia, a hill tribe trek was high on my agenda. I wanted to get an insight into villagers’ lives; I wanted to witness – as I wrote on my blog at the time – “lifestyles unchanged in centuries, perhaps even millennia”. However, wanting to travel responsibly, I was worried about how my presence might influence local people’s traditional way of life. I travelled to the remote hamlet of Luang Nam Tha, near the Chinese border in Northern Laos, and signed up for a three-day trek, at a much higher price than if I had paid in Chiang Mai. I chose the local branch of a Laotian ‘eco-tourism agency’, visiting what was promised as a ‘non-touristy area’. The wall was adorned with a pie-chart, informing visitors that up to 45% of the trek fee went directly to villagers, and a further 10% was invested in community projects. I did not mind paying a slightly higher price, if the communities were going to benefit from it.

The first village we stayed at was home to the Khmu tribe, who migrated to Laos centuries ago from what is now Cambodia. It was built on the side of a hill, in the centre of a patch cleared of forest, surrounded by fields on all sides. The air was thick with ash and smoke; this area of Laos, as indeed most of northern South East Asia, still practices slash-and-burn agriculture. Trees are felled and burnt, and the ash is used as fertiliser. My eyes started streaming as soon as we arrived; within a few hours we had all developed sore throats and persistent coughs.

We were housed in a large, solid, tin-roofed hut, built for tourists, a few hundred yards downhill from the rest of the tribe. A long-drop toilet was for us to use. We spent the day wandering around the village, surrounded by muddy-faced children; their joyful chatter, broken by fits of dry cough, accompanied us as we walked around. Women in colourful headscarves were happy to take a break from weaving and dyeing natural fibres to have a chat, and offer us their handicrafts for sale. The men were at work in the fields. We noticed that the villagers had no toilets; they used an uncultivated field above the village for their needs. Their huts were a lot smaller and flimsier than ours, with thatched roofs and leaning walls.

The following day we visited the Lantan people, originally from Yunnan in northern China. The village, built on the bank of a river, was enveloped in cipria-coloured mist, thick with ash. A bamboo gate, strangely streaked with blood, marked the entrance. There were no bedraggled children about. As soon as we arrived, a few women raced out of their huts holding baskets of handicrafts, touting for our custom; their children tiptoed outside, curious to see us. When the ladies realised we were not interested in buying, they retreated inside, dragging their children along. Despite the insistence of our guide, they refused to interact, leaving us no alternative but to leave.

We learnt later that the Lantan were in the middle of a religious festival; the blood on the village gate belonged to a recent sacrificed animal. When I asked the guide why we were taken to that particular village, where we were clearly unwelcome, he replied that tourists usually like the Lantan, because of their colourful traditional clothing. The encounter was so brief I had not even noticed what the women were wearing.

Unable to spend the night in the Lantan village, we walked downriver, looking for somewhere to stay. None of us were concerned; rather, we were disappointed after being taken to a place where we were neither expected nor wanted. At dusk, we arrived at another Khmu settlement, close to the road back to Luang Nam Tha. This village was larger than the first one we stayed at. Huts were sturdier, some of them two-storied, all with a long-drop toilet in the yard. Villagers wore Western clothes, brought by cunning Chinese merchants who visited weekly. The village looked comparably better off; downhill from the burnt fields, the ash had subsided, the air was breathable again.

This village rarely saw visitors. When we wondered why, we were told tourists do not like it, because inhabitants wear Western clothes and have mobile phones. Being close to the road, villagers enjoy the benefits of trade to supplement their own agriculture-based economy. Some tourists labelled the village as not authentic, westernised. Not authentic on the basis of what? Of their own romanticised idea that minority tribespeople live in shacks in the deep forest, running around in colourful garb?

The villagers were happy for us to stay. We ate together, talked about our lives, and spent the night in their houses. I stayed in the chief’s house, which was not particularly larger or wealthier than the others. When it was time to go to bed, the chief’s mother even tucked me in. We were not expected there, tourists rarely visited; the village hospitality was genuine.

Three years on from this trek, I am still struggling to define the experience. Did my presence bring benefits to the communities, or did it interrupt their life? The debate on the topic is raging, on traveller’s forums on the net and in smoky South East Asian bars, and beyond.

The main idea underlying the concept of community-based tourism is that it encourages travellers to discover cultures while supporting local communities, which in turn allows them to preserve their traditions. Widespread tourism, alongside travellers’ penchant for what is ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’, has brought sizeable benefits to people living in isolated villages. Despite ideas of bucolic paradises, the lives of minority tribespeople are often far from being idyllic; a failed harvest means famine, distance from medical assistance may result in death from a minor infection. Tourists can help locals in need of medical supplies; north-by-north-east.com reports that a tourist trekking through the Thai hills gave antibacterial cream to a farmer with an infected hand, potentially saving his life.

Tourism provides local people with an alternative source of income, one that requires minimal initial assets beyond their land and culture. Moreover, a steady stream of travellers ensures these communities do not have to alter their lifestyle, because it is their lifestyle that attracts tourists, after all. Khmu women are able to continue dyeing natural fibres, weave and embroider, and pass these skills onto their children, as long as there are tourists visiting and buying their handicrafts. Tourism allows these people to remain in their ancestral land, instead of moving to cities to find mainstream employment. It brings development, in terms of economy and infrastructure. It is possible that community-based tourism has allowed cultures to thrive, when alternatively they would have survived only in anthropology books.

On the surface, it sounds like a win-win situation, both for villagers and travellers. Reality, however, is seldom that simple. Local-tourists relationships are rarely direct; more often than not they are mediated by one or more ‘middle men’, such as guides, local and international travel agencies. On paper this is essential to provide travellers with the necessary know-how in relating to tribes. However, during my trip to the Laotian hills, we were given little information on how to behave. Incidents could have occurred, bringing about not only short-term animosity but also reinforcing stereotypes of tourists as boorish and disrespectful. Similarly, middle men are supposed to inform locals how to relate to visitors respectfully. The behaviour of Lantan women led me to believe that tourists had been presented to them only as potential customers for handicrafts.

Most tourists are genuinely concerned for their presence to be as beneficial as possible to the local communities, hence choosing – just as I did – operators promising to share their profits with villagers. However, detailed information on how profits are shared is rarely disclosed. Our guide had no idea. And what happens to the extra 10% that, according to the pie-chart in Luang Nam Tha, was to be invested in community projects? Again, he did not know. A pie-chart was all it took to convince me to sign up. However, on the agency website there is now no sign of it, leading me to believe it was only bait for gullible tourists.

On bootsnall.com, JoAnna Haugen argues “community-based tourism walks a very fine line between sharing local traditions and exploiting them“. In order to identify when cultural sharing becomes exploitation, it is necessary to define culture first. If culture was born in the community, it must survive for the community, within the community. This is not to say it should not be shared with visitors; but if it survives only because of tourists, is it still culture, or does it become a mere representation of what life once was? Going back to my experience, I have been wondering whether the Khmu and Lantan women of Northern Laos wore traditional clothes, dyed and wove natural fibres because they wanted to, or whether they did because they were asked to do so by the agency. After all, we were told travellers did not like to see tribespeople in Western clothes; the second Khmu village we stayed at was labelled as ‘unauthentic’. Would it have been more ‘authentic’ if agencies had insisted people wore traditional clothes?

Our visit to the Lantan was a complete disaster; yet, according to our guide, travellers liked visiting them because of their traditional clothing. Does this justify intruding on a community during a time when outsiders are not wanted in the village? On the other hand, in the last, ‘unauthentic’ Khmu village we enjoyed spontaneous hospitality. There were no handicrafts for sale, villagers wore no colourful garb; they were curious about our life, we were curious about theirs, with the aid of our guide we were able to communicate and learn about each other. Three years on, I have come to the conclusion that it happened because the village was not overloaded with tourists; hence, villagers still possessed a genuine desire to share their culture, which had not yet been commodified. Hopefully it never will be.

So, do we exploit communities just by visiting them? Community-based tourism requires little initial assets, and it offers guaranteed returns. Communities are exploited when they do not benefit from such returns. It is very hard to find out how profits are shared with the locals; guides often do not know and information provided by travel agents is vague at best. With the exception of NGO-run community tourism projects, most enterprises operating in the South East Asian region are run on a for-profit basis. This leads me to believe that, in many cases, villagers only see a minimal part of the profits, which have been swallowed up by middle men along the way. The first step towards improving community-based tourism is greater transparency in terms of profit-sharing. Tourists have the right to know where their money is going; more government control should prevent enterprises involved in community-based tourism, regardless of whether they are locally or internationally owned, from promising one thing to the tourists and delivering another to the community, hiding their greed behind meaningless pie-charts.

In what form should profits be returned to the community? Does every household get an equal share? With the introduction of tourism to hill tribes in South East Asia, changes that in the West have occurred over centuries, are taking place within few decades. South East Asian tribes are collectivist communities; the introduction of a cash economy, through which it is possible to get rich faster, may lead some individuals to perceive tourism as a way to make a quick buck for themselves, rather than sharing with the rest of the community. Meanwhile, hierarchical structures within the tribe are usually strong; this may prevent profits being shared equally, causing competition and arguments between villagers, which may end up destroying the harmony of the community.

A sustainable approach to community-based tourism can offer positive development, while minimising internal tensions and disruption to village life. Community projects are sometimes offered in lieu of cash payment, such as a water pump for the village, school supplies for the children, regular doctor visits. Development projects could also be valid alternatives; for example introducing other forms of agriculture alternative to slash-and-burn, detrimental not only to health but also to the soil, which becomes exhausted after only few years of planting, ultimately increasing deforestation. Sharing profits in this way would bring tangible benefits to the community, and allow every villager to enjoy a better quality of life.

It is also important to prevent community-based tourism from becoming the only source of income. A day spent with tourists is not as hard work as a day in the fields; this was not yet the case where we visited, but in some villages near Chiang Mai agriculture has all but been abandoned. What would happen to the village if tourists stopped visiting one day? Community-based tourism should be a way to complement traditional village economy, not replace it. An alternative could lie in small tourist numbers, and some villagers already recognise the benefits of this. On the Huffington Post, Duya Luke reported that her guide, a Karen tribesman from a village north of Chiang Mai, ran only a couple of tours a month, in order to promote cultural sharing and empower young generations to continue practicing sustainable tourism; generating income for the village, but without disrupting daily life.

As stated on tookish.org, community-based tourism is “neither unequivocally positive, nor unequivocally negative“. The real challenge is maximising positive aspects. The first and foremost step is mutual respect. Tourists should remember that locals are not there to provide entertainment; villages are their homes. If locals feel their experience of community-based tourism is beneficial, they will be motivated to protect their land and allow access to tourists; otherwise they may become unwelcome and resentful, ultimately driving travellers away.

Avoiding contact with tribespeople accomplishes nothing, unless this is what the tribe chooses; at the same time, flooding villages with tourists can be detrimental to local people’s life. The secret lies in balance; working on sustainable numbers, and investing profits back into the community. As such, the experience can become positive to both tourists and villagers, as the last night of my trek in the hills of northern Laos was for me. An experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. To the community, our visit was a window on the world, which widened their experience and perspective. It increased their self-confidence, providing them with the knowledge that they have something that others want to discover: their lifestyle and traditions. Something worth maintaining, and passing onto future generations.

Village Life in Romania

Marina walks down the path with a steady pace. She knows the place well; she has spent her childhood in the hills north of Bucharest. It is not a very nice day; a sticky rain falls without respite, the sharp wind of the Carpathians creeps beneath our jackets. The path continues uphill, disappearing behind the hilltops, our destination is not visible yet. It is not easy to keep up with Marina; the smooth sole of my shoes slides on the damp, moss-covered boulders, grassy patches are turning into swamps. A thick fog is bathing the hills with a sinister light. The shining eye of a crow observes us, menacing, behind willow branches. Suddenly, we hear the unmistakable clop of hooves on stone. A boy on his way back from the mill stops to rescue us, offering a lift to Auntie Alina’s house.

Marina is a friend from Bucharest. She lives in a Soviet building with her sister, in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. She has been living in town for years, but she comes from Petricaua, a village in the countryside two hours north of Bucharest. After having spent several days in the city, I was growing tired of the wide boulevards, incessant traffic and Soviet architecture, looming Metropolis-like behind each corner. Marina had planned to visit her aunt, in her home village, and invited me to go along. I was happy to accept.

Shortly after leaving Bucharest, on the road, Dacia cars give way to tractors and horse carts, potholes become deeper and more frequent the closer we get to our destination. Then the car gives up, the road is too bad, we have to keep walking. Auntie Alina is expecting us at midday, but thanks to traffic and several deviations we are nearly an hour late.

After trekking for another hour up the hills in the unforgiving weather, we are wet and cold: the cart looks like a godsend. The driver’s name is Mircea; he’s a 15 years old high school student, helping his family during the Easter holidays. We climb on board, and sit on top of the plastic sheets covering hessian bags bulging with flour. We proceed with jerks and bumps; the wooden wheels are hard on our backs. At one point, crossing the muddy path in the cart becomes impossible. We are bogged. Mircea laughs as we get off to help him push the cart, with mud squelching beneath our trainers and the horses’ hooves. Following his directions, we break free, and lead the cart towards a smaller path, little more than a track, leading towards a house on the top of a hill.

“We are nearly there, that is Auntie Alina’s house” says Marina, gazing towards a small wooden house with a painted cross in the courtyard.

“Guys, take off your shoes” whispers Marina, pointing to my dirty trainers, still bearing the signs of our battle to wrestle the cart free of the mud. Dozens of shoes are outside the door. There are heavy work boots, coloured plastic flip-flops, trainers in various sizes, fluffy animal slippers and even a pair of leather sandals, with chunky stiletto heels. From the house we can hear singing, chatter, laughter. “We are lucky! This is șezătoare” Marina informs us, with pride. Sezătoare is a local tradition, exclusively for women. The literal meaning is ‘gathering’. Women meet to work, but at the same time they enjoy themselves, sing, gossip and tell each other jokes. In the room, a dozen women are sitting around a long table; they are singing a cheerful song, while their skilled hands deftly move the spinning wheel, embroider, mend socks, spin wool and wrap it into balls. The fireplace warms the house gently; the room smells like straw, the bodies close to one another have the sharp and pungent smell of people who work with animals.

Alina sits in the centre, singing with a steady voice; the glances of other women reveal her authority. She must be about seventy; her face is browned by a lifetime working in the fields, lined by the wind that whips the Carpathians all year long. “They always have șezătoare at Alina’s house” reveals Marina “people in the village, especially the women, holds her in high esteem. She is like an unofficial leader, the village matriarch; everybody goes to her when that have a problem”.

Marina introduces her to her aunt; her handshake is firm, confident. She asks me about where I am from, about my family. Many women she knows have moved to Italy, my home country. They work as nurses and maids, she says, away from their own families. Her gaze pierces me, for an instant. I notice Alina has the habit of pursing her lips when making a point, making them look like a flower. She wears a daffodil behind her ear; she holds my hand and leads me towards a picture of herself fifty years ago. She was a beautiful woman, with a flower behind her ear. She loves flowers, she says.

Meanwhile, șezătoare continues. Two women play with a five-year old named Geanina: they brush her hair and dress her, chatting animatedly.

“They are exchanging recipes for Lent” Marina says. There are young women, one with a pierced nose, and older ladies; most of them wear colourfully embroidered shirts with geometrical cross-stitch patterns, heavy black skirts and a kerchief on their heads. They start singing another song; this time following a plaintive, mournful rhythm. The hushed tones bounce on the walls of the small room.

“They wrote many of these songs themselves, they are written on that book” explains Marina, pointing towards a blackened handwritten book on the table. “This is Elisaveta’s song. She died two months ago.”

All songs begin with a reference to Nature. “Willow leaf, when I was young, I married a poor man. My parents said to me, if you believe in God and work hard, you will be happy. Now I am old, but I have a horse and a cart, with them I see the world”. Elisabeta observes us from a framed picture on the wall, looking pleased. A life in a song.

The sound of a bagpipe comes from outside; the women stand up together, Catalin has arrived. Alina introduces him to us: “He is Eugenia’s husband, my cousin. He is the village musician. He would like to meet our guests”. Catalin plays the bagpipes with passion, then changes to a handmade wooden flute; he plays a jolly tune, while the women dance on the grass, first in a circle then in pairs, holding hands, skipping and beating their heels on the grass. The weather has improved. The sun peeks shyly behind the clouds, the flute plays along birds singing, and the bleats of lambs that will live only another week, until Easter. Joyful cries accompany the dance, a game of questions and answers between Alina and her cousin Maria. Listening carefully, it is possible to hear words; it is strigături, a traditional chant from the Romanian Carpathians.

“Villages here are scattered on the hills” Marina explains “Strigături means ‘shouting’, it developed because people used to scream to communicate from one hill to another. They are merry songs, talking about life in the village”.

After a little while, Auntie Alina leads us back into her home. She very proud of her ‘museum’; a couple of rooms on the back of her house where she has gathered the memories of a lifetime. Carpets, vases, musical instruments; there are also two small frames with a collage made using bark, moss and dried flowers. And most important of all, a collection of embroidered shirts; hanging on the walls, draped over the divans, some are over one hundred years old, made by Alina’s grandmother. A school photo is hanging on the wall; Ceausescu’s emotionless face observes the group of children, who look as if they were about to burst out laughing. Alina points to the teacher; the same face, beautiful yet stern, the same flower behind the ear that greeted us at our arrival. She moves to another room, sits at the loom and starts to work, and reminisce.

“We have been so lucky. We did not have to leave. Many had to go to Bucharest, to Ploiesti, to work in the factories. They used to come and take them, but they never came to Petricaua”. Some women are spinning wool. The freshly sheared wool is tied to wonderfully carved wooden sticks, which the women keep tucked into their belts. Their hands turn tufts into yarn with apparent ease. The click of the loom accompanies Alina’s memories.

“Girls nowadays are too outspoken. They were a lot quieter when I was young. But I was a tomboy! I was the first born and I had no brothers, so I was raised with the ‘needle and the whip’. I had to help my mother with sewing, but I also used to ride and hunt with my father. And I loved playing football, but the boys always wanted me to play as goalkeeper. One day there was this boy I fancied, trying to catch the ball I slipped and caught his belt, his trousers dropped and he was left stark naked!” Alina laughs remembering the episode, the yellow daffodil falls on the loom.

Back to Alina’s living room: it is nearly six, people eat early around here. It is the last week of Lent, a time of fasting for the Christian Orthodox community, forty days without meat or dairy products. “That just makes Easter lunch taste better!” Marina jokes. The table is laden; we eat from communal plates, bean puree covered in tomato sauce, vegetable soup, a corn and nut mix, another soup made with prunes in lukewarm water. We drink elderflower juice and warm brandy poured generously by Catalin, who does not part from his bagpipes. More than thirty people sit in the same room, shoulder to shoulder on the wooden benches.

“Most people from the village eat together, during Lent. Especially during the last week” explains Marina. Children chase ginger cats under the table, women chat and help each other in the kitchen, men down glasses of brandy; the atmosphere is familiar, joyous, festive. Many families are like one, eating together, sharing. A pang of envy hits me, I have never experienced this feeling of community, of people being there for one another.

Alina wants to talk to me a little more.

“Are there villages like ours, in your country?” I must admit I do not know. Then I remember my grandmother, and her tales of growing up in the countryside, several families under the same roof. I remember her stories of Sunday lunches; of growing up with animals and dozens other children, of the wide horizons, of her sadness when she moved to the city after the war destroyed her home and family.

“There may be some villages like this one, still. My grandmother grew up in a place like this” I answer. “But she lives in a city now”.

Alina wants us to stay, but we have to get back to the car before it is dark. Little Geanina returns home with her grandmother, pulling her toy truck. Another woman goes back home from the fields, carrying a haystack on her shoulders. The end of a day of work in the fields. She enters Alina’s house; the other women offer her a bowl of soup. Alina comes to us, to say goodbye: “My parents used to say that before we go, we all have to leave something for the village. My father left the cross in front of the house, my uncle dug the well, my grandfather built the mill. I created the museum. I would like to open it to visitors, friends, I would like to tell people about our life here, in Petricaua. We have been so lucky. We have always had each other”.

Tram 23

Tram number 23 bounces at the intersection, leans slightly, hissing as it turns. Then brakes clack, wheels slide to a halt, screeching along the rails; doors clatter, passengers hurry off. Something always calls me to alight a few stops earlier than I need to. I find myself in Piazza Tricolore. A luxurious hotel stands mockingly, next to the bleak, angular building of Milan’s Opera San Francesco, where every day at midday food is offered to those in need. It is nearly twelve. I wander past; there are far more people than a few years ago.

South, into Viale Premuda. A few baroque fin-de-siècle buildings, their façades decorated with acanthus leaves and lion heads, stand alongside far more numerous postwar blocks of flats, austere and simple. They were built after Allied bombs destroyed a quarter of the city in a single week. Ancient planes line the road; their gnarled roots and knotted trunks are about to swallow the tram rails. These trees are older than the bombs.

Further south, in Piazza Cinque Giornate, nobody stops to look at the memorial in the centre of the square. Tiny, yellow violas border a tall, copper-green obelisk, surrounded by fallen and mourning statues. The stretched arm of a woman reaches upwards, towards the golden star on top. There are many names of women on the memorial, for the Cinque Giornate (five days) was not a war but an uprising, and its heroes were not soldiers but Milan’s citizens. They drove Austrian invaders out of Milan, after a five-day insurrection in 1848. Field Marshal Radetzky was their foe; his mustachioed mug the symbol of the Austrian yoke. The uprising marked the beginning of the First War of Italian Independence; but after a few months Radetzky returned to Milan, marching triumphantly through the city door, in the same piazza where the memorial now stands.

Every year, Radetzky March closes the Wiener Philarmoniker’s New Year concert. I always watched the concert with my grandfather, who hated Austrians as much as he loved Austrian music. He taught me how to waltz; his brogues creaked as we slid across the marble floor, spinning one-two-three, one-two-three, while the orchestra played Blue Danube. All of a sudden there was the roll of a snare drum, then the brass allegro rising, bouncy, bright; I wanted to keep dancing to Radetzky March. “We can’t dance now, this is a march. For soldiers”, he said. We sat at the table: he looked up, glanced out of the window. He spent three years underground during the war, hiding in a cellar after deserting the Fascist Army. In the last years of his life he hardly ever went out, except to pick me up at school. He was a foot taller than everybody else: I never missed him in the crowd. He brought me bread and chocolate, and as we walked towards the tram he taught me the capitals of every country of the world. He used to say that, whatever happened, he would come to pick me up every day. Whatever happened, except for one thing. One day he was not there. I understood. I caught tram number 23 by myself, for the first time.

My London Fox

6310_10201002688096470_881612387_nThe first time I saw a fox was a winter night in 2005, near my flat in Ladbroke Grove.  Snow had just started to fall, frosting the tall hedges between the houses. The night had already acquired the muted stillness which is snow’s greatest gift to cities. It wasn’t long since I had moved to London; I remember being told there were thousands of foxes, but I thought it was some sort of urban myth. I crossed Portobello Road and continued south, towards Notting Hill Gate, when I saw a shape, silhouetted on the tobacco-coloured brick wall of the Colegio Espanol. It was blurred by the snow; at first glance I thought it was a dog. It turned into a side street; for an instant, the amber glow of a streetlight showed its gangly legs, its sharp muzzle. As quickly as it appeared, it was gone. I stood puzzled for a while. Foxes really lived in London.

It seemed like a paradox that foxes could live in a city of seven million people. London, however, is a city like no other; it is a city of commons and heaths, of parks as big as entire neighbourhoods. Foxes inhabit the grey area between wild and urban, between night and day. Present yet hidden, they show themselves in flashes. For years I did not see another fox. I felt them, though. Their presence, their traces were everywhere. I moved to Willesden Green, to a house with a small back garden. Their screams woke me up in the middle of the night. After the rain, I saw their tiny, rounded footprints in the mud. I put ribs of beef near the holes I believed were foxes’ dens. A few days later, I collected their chewed-up bones. I spent hours looking out the window, bored of my essays, determined I would see anther fox. All I saw were a pair of eyes near a hole in the back fence.

On the day I left London for good, I woke early. It was a chilly July morning, with a timid sun rising behind Victorian chimneys. Dawn slowly lit up my back garden; magpies scared flittering robins away, bumblebees danced around wilted daffodils. Three fox cubs entered carefully, tiptoeing along the back fence. Their fur was the colour of autumn. They had lost the fuzzy coat of when they are newly born, but their rounded jowls bore a faint trace of sharpness. Their paws were too big for their bodies; the cubs’ movements were still clumsy. They didn’t look stealthy and cunning, as I imagined a fox to be, but spoke of joy and bliss, of the light-heartedness of childhood.

I sat while my coffee got cold, my forehead pressed against the window. I couldn’t  believe what I was seeing. I had tried to see a fox for years, and now three cubs played in the garden, wrestling one another, bounding, jumping; then falling over on a heap of leaves, tripping over fallen branches. A vixen sat behind the bushes, near a hole in the back fence; I could only see her big hazel eyes, a patch of cream-coloured fur around her mouth.

The foxes left when the city awoke. I went to catch my flight.

Milano Centrale

In Milano, Stazione Centrale has a bad reputation. It’s dangerous, prostitutes pickpockets gypsies beggars junkies hang around. Stay away from it, they used to say to me. I didn’t listen. When I was a teenager, something drew me there. I thought it was the trains: it was the station.

I loved the platforms. I used to sneak past the men in the booths checking tickets; I would hang around waiting for them to be distracted, then dash through, crouching down, running at the rhythm of my nervous heartbeats. Luckily for me, more often than not, inspectors were too busy listening to the football on tinny transistor radios.

At 3 pm, the Freccia del Sud from Sicily would arrive. People got off the train holding cardboard suitcases, one tentative step after another, down the three metal steps. Men and women locking arms walked down the platform, under the enormous vaulted roof, supported by cast-iron beams and pillars, covered in decades of soot. Children rushed behind, carrying string bags bulging with food. I listened to their conversations. Tomatoes and aubergines from Milano have no flavour, they used to say.

A young couple sat on a marble chimera facing the platforms. He had a rough face, lined and browned by the Southern sun, proud eyes of darkness; I could not see hers, hidden by a wide-brimmed straw hat. I saw their hands, unwrapping a parcel containing roasted fish; his were working hands, large and yellowed by calluses; hers were deft and long-fingered, picking tiny, translucent bones from the fish. “When will we eat fish again?” he asked. “I don’t know. When we get back home, for Christmas. How can the fish be fresh, so far away from the sea?”

Sometimes, the emigrants would go to the souvenir shops at the end of the platforms, to buy gaudy Madonnas surrounded in twinkling lights. “For protection” they would say,    extracting oily notes from purses sawn to the inside of their trousers. Next door was the Wax Museum, where the exhibits were not half as interesting as the visitors. It was the only heated place, at the time. And it was free. The attendant booth was empty; the Museum was about to close for good. Meanwhile, in a flurry of skirts, gypsy women played the game of three cards, in front of the dusty wax-casts of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference. Two or three women sat on a park bench, their hands tossing cards back and forth on stained headscarves on their laps, while their fox-faced children collected bets. Punters watched, shrouded in cigarette smoke: they never guessed. Every now and then the police would come in and throw everybody out. I hid behind Marie Antoinette’s skirts, terrified, while the police and the gypsies exchanged insults I didn’t understand.

In 2005, the station was renovated. The soot was washed off, the trains from Sicily no longer exist. The wax museum has given way to high street stores. I only go there to catch trains now.