A Lift from the Georgian Police

Published on The Guardian, 15/12/2012

Runner-up the The Guardian’s Travel writing competition


Chapel Women

Not a soul to be seen. The roads were empty: no babushkas at the windows, no children running in the fields, no men sipping chacha (brandy) on their steps. Although we knew Ushguli was remote, we hadn’t expected the streets to be completely empty. That was worrying. From Ushguli, we’d been told, we could catch a shared jeep back to the regional capital, Mestia.

There were no jeeps. We walked past stone houses, towards the tiny church, the white-tipped peaks of the Caucasus just visible behind. At last, the villagers appeared, streaming out of the tiny door, making for the cemetery below, where, in front of crooked gravestones, tables were laden with food. Tomatoes, roasted suckling pigs and bottles of chacha – the living and the departed feasted together.Mountain Towers

“Mestia?” we asked, wandering between tables, accepting fresh cheese pies and hunks of pork. “Tomorrow,” they replied. The penny dropped. It was Assumption day, one of the holiest of the year. I was petrified at the idea of spending the night banqueting with the dead. We’d have to hitchhike. Back on the main road cars sped past, covering us with dust. Then hours would pass with nothing. Our hopes were fading with the light. We prepared for a night under the stars, but the temperature was dropping fast. Suddenly, a police jeep pulled up. “Mestia? Come with us.”

I could not believe our luck. Three policemen, vests bulging with ammunition. “Move the guns,” one of them ordered, pointing to a pile of machine guns on the back seat.

We bobbed over bumpy roads, squeezed between guns and police muscle, shells digging into our chests, past the conical summit of Mount Shkhara and the twin saddle-shaped peaks of Mount Ushba, heading towards a mountain pass.

At the top, the jeep pulled to an abrupt halt. “Get out,” barked one policeman. We climbed out shaking, thinking they were going to test the guns on us. They looked at our frightened faces, then burst out laughing. “We not kill you! Just little rest.” In the twilight, we swapped stories between rhododendron bushes and Alpine wildflowers, joking about how lucky we had been. A reminder to check the calendar, next time we go on a trek.Village Mountain StreamChurch Ushba Mountain  Glacier Ridge


An Italian Birth

Square and WaterMy great-grandfather Manfred was born in Trieste in 1865. His father Papy was a young Austrian chemical engineer, who specialised in ship paints. When he wanted to start his own company, the logical move would have been to set it up in Venice, the main port of the Austrian Empire. But Papy didn’t like Venice. It was too musty and damp, he used to say. Mamy, his delicate wife, suggested moving to Trieste, a small, provincial port town, which was breezy and dry, a lot better for her nerves. What started out as a whim ended up being Papy’s fortune, for only one year after Manfred’s birth Venice was annexed to the newborn kingdom of Italy, Trieste became the Kaiser’s main port, and the paint business flourished.

The family lived in the borgo Teresiano, in a baroque-façaded, powder-pink building that still stands today. It was close enough to the port, so Papy could wake up every morning to see his paints covering the Imperial fleet, but not so close that Mamy had to walk through the thick, salt-laden air in the maze of streets around the bustling harbour. Mamy preferred sitting with her husband in one of the kaffeehauses in what was then the Piazza Grande, sipping real Viennese melange, a milky concoction of coffee and cream, the drink of choice of wealthy citizens of the Empire. Trieste was very cosmopolitan then: Austrians drank their coffees in the piazza along with Greek ship-builders, Armenian merchants and Jewish moneylenders, while Italians, Slavs and Albanians waited at their tables.Boat

Manfred used to sit on Mamy’s lap, stiff-backed in his pinafore. The square looked like a theatre, he said, closed by buildings on three sides, the sea as a stage. From Piazza Grande, Trieste watched the show unfold on the Adriatic in front; on idle summer days, ships crossed the golden expanse, travelling to and from the four corners of the Mediterranean. In winter, ships bobbed and listed, whipped by the bora, the katabatic wind of the Northern Adriatic. Trieste’s streets had handrails; when the bora blew, people had to hold onto them, or else they would be blown away, thrown into the choppy sea. Mamy never took Manfred out then.

Manfred didn’t remain in Trieste long, after his childhood. He was sent to an exclusive boarding school in Vienna, where he studied to become a diplomat. He returned to the town of his birth at the end of World War I when, at nearly fifty years old, he was appointed Head of the Garrison on the island of Lussinpiccolo. Manfred sailed to the island at the end of the days of Habsburg Trieste, on a ship painted with the memories of his childhood. The victorious Italian army marched in a few weeks later, on November 3rd, 1918, claiming the city as their own, renaming the square where his mother drank coffee Piazza Unità d’Italia. Trieste was made Italian; having been born in Trieste, ‘with the stroke of a notary’s pen’[1], Manfred became Italian too.trieste statue man

[1] Jan Morris, “Trieste and the meaning of Nowhere”

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

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.