Xinjiang: Getting Places, Going Nowhere

A dirty white pick-up truck pulls over. It looks like a stubby cigar, with a kind of truncated rear end and an air of adorable inadequacy. The fat, moustachioed man in the driver’s seat leans out of the window with the beginnings of a grin.

I decide that his expression is kindly. His face would seem kind though, smiling or not. He sits there in bemusement for a while and I feel a little sheepish with my cardboard hitchhiker’s sign – here people pay for bus tickets when they want to get somewhere.

I say ‘As-salamu alaykum’ and hello in Uighur all in one breath, before following it up with some Chinese – in case he gets any wrong ideas about my Uighur being capable of anything beyond cotton-mouthed niceties.

 ‘I want to go East, can you help me?’

I get the impression that going generally East wasn’t something people did,

 ‘I want to go to Aksu.’


‘Aksu, Kuche, after to Kashgar’

‘Kuche is over 600km away’, he tells me. Here some pause, and my frustration – his confused benevolence. ‘I can take you to the bus station, do you have a ticket?’

His Mandarin is pretty choppy and there is a sense of familiar distance in his words. Not a problem – all throughout Xinjiang I’ve found it easier to speak to the men and women whose tongues, like mine, fail to wrap themselves around Chinese words.

 I manage to convey where I’m heading, the urgency of this commitment, and that I don’t want a bus, that I want to drive. I don’t tell him that I can’t stand another crowded cattle-wagon, that I want to meet people, to road trip it – just me and some strangers on the open road – (there doesn’t seem room for it in our conversation).

I got up at half four today. I want as much time as I can squeeze into the day – I’ll need it for the bumpy 16 hours it’s going to take to drive straight to Aksu. Not even so very deep down, I know that I’ve made the plan to arrive in Aksu by nightfall the same way I plan to catch the last train home on a Friday night.

Foolhardy, nonetheless important: a tangible way point in a world of unknowable bus schedules, and unfathomable routes.

The moustachioed man in the stubby-reared truck has likely been up before me though. I jump into the truck before I quite know what his plans are for me. There are empty, milky containers knocking around the back. I ask him about them. He’s been delivering milk from his own cows to a shop in the city, back the way I’ve walked into Yining. These places, they have so many names. It was also known as Ghulja, formerly Ili and Khulja. Today it has a Chinese name.


For being so close to the main road, the neighbourhood is quiet. It’s not been far, barely five minutes along the dust robed road, beneath the roaring concrete highway that marks the outskirts of Yining. ‘where are we going’? I ask the man.

‘To my home’. I hope home is in Aksu, or Kuche, or even outside of Yining.

It’s not. He opens a pair of double doors – tall, ornately decorated wood under a carved archway, a bright turquoise blue, faded and peeling, forlorn and beautiful. In clichéd fashion, a gaggle of people suddenly materialize – a wife, son, perhaps an aunt and a grandma – several neighbours whom my cheerful moustachioed friend was probably pre-warning by phone as we drove.

Here –  one of them is brandishing a paper road map. We lay it out on the bed of the truck and hunch over it, like generals on the eve of battle. There’s chatter – some rapid fire – some measured, and all of it incomprehensible. They discuss my plans with philosophic interest.  My aims are re-established, I reiterate my urgency. Someone is mentioning the bus and I insist upon my fantasy car journey. They’re capitulating now, humouring my plans like the whims of a senile old man, without knowing why.

The joint-staff meeting is over, my friend invites me for breakfast.

My feet itch for movement.

I arrived in Yining fairly ill –  in the early morning, crawling into town on the night train, crawling into a taxi, finding one of those hotels still under construction and literally crawling into bed.

I sure crawled into town, but I’ve spent the better part of a week puking up my guts – recovering – and now I’m made anew, born again lust for the road. To be on my way with life’s provisions on my back and only the imagined and real ahead of me. That’s the ticket. But the warm weight of this man’s kindness softens me; he wants me to meet his son.

The cows are there, two docile beasts who look near the end of their milking days. Sheep too, the fat-tailed kind you find this end of the earth, with wobbling behinds of wool-tufted lard.

They’re at the far reach of the small courtyard. A trellis overhead, a creeping vine heavy with the fat, juicy grapes Xinjiang is famous for. The table is up some stairs, still outside but with a canopy over head and a sheltered wood burning stove.

The man’s wife stands, warming milk over the stove. His boy, who’s about thirteen, has already eaten, but my moustachioed friend is clearly ravenous. We eat hard bread from a plastic bag at the centre of the table, and drink milk tea, sweetened with sugar. The wife brings large bowls of sticky jam. I dip my bread, but the moustachioed man is drinking the sweet-sour raspberry nectar like soup from the bowl.  The boy has light blue eyes and brown hair, harder looking than his father, a kind of nervous enthusiasm. His Mandarin’s perfect but he’s speaking English pretty well too. While we talk, the father kind of takes a back seat. I glance at him and he is looking at the boy. It seems odd for him to talk now. The kid’s telling me he’s at school – top of his class and loves English. He translates for his father now, who relaxes into Uyghur.

I don’t know what has happened to the grand plans of moments ago, but Ehmet, that’s the boy’s name, and his father are ushering me back into the truck. We’re driving back into Yining, I swear it.

‘Have you seen the Yili river?’ Ehmet’s father asks. I understand, but Ehmet translates.

The Yili river thunders through Yining into Almaty, Kazakhstan –  I’ve seen it, but for some reason I don’t let on.

‘We must go, you need to see the Yili river.’ It’s almost half nine, I’ve been up for over five hours. ‘That would be great’ I say. We drive back into town; along the same road I had just trod out of Yining.


The streets are burning with that ominous heat. I’d wished to avoid such things.

The Yili does indeed thunder. Ehmet says that many lives are snatched away each year by it’s tempestuous current, I learn a new word – ‘duo zou’ – it means ‘to snatch away.’

We while away a few hours together – there is this old school funfair on the riverside, dated horror houses, bored young men at air rifle stands, soda cans on ice and oversized stuffed animals.

Here we find a squadron of golf buggies stationed on the walkway running parallel to the Yili river.

The passing of my youth in this third-tier city of dust and concrete – the constant roar of the muddy green Yili.

The tarmac passing beneath the wheels of the buggy we’ve rented is infuriatingly slow. The battery seemed to fizzle fifteen minutes ago and Ehmet’s father became embarrassed on behalf of the dawdling machine.

Ehmet is looking at me, seems like he is going to say something. ‘We both have blue eyes’, he says.

I take the opportunity.

‘Do you think me and you are more similar than you and a Han Chinese person?’ I ask Ehmet,

‘We both have blue eyes, yes, we are more the same.’

Bread and dairy, there is something playful and aggressive in the air here. Each step west seems a step closer to home. But I feel torn between quarrelling parents (though I know it is much more serious than that). Sometimes I foam at the mouth with anger at the cold and alien oppressors in their fucking stink in Beijing. Other times… a tide of youths sweeping the streets with their hateful faces, eyes sick with violence. I find a restaurant run by a smiling family from Shanghai. I eat rice and good home style food, they laugh and play cards in the corner and I feel safe.

Ehmet wants to be a doctor.

‘What language are you taught in at school?’ I ask

‘In Uyghur, but half the time we learn Mandarin and all about Chinese books, history, this sort of thing.’

I probe a little, ‘And Uyghur history, Uyghur stuff?’

‘We have lessons on Uyghur culture’

Hijab, big red cross, Smiling lady in ethnic headdress, big green tick. These are the posters you see sometimes in convenience stores. Uyghur culture is ubiquitous in Xinjiang, colourfully clothed ladies smile joyfully down from billboards, holding hands with their neighbours.

‘Ethnic harmony leads to national unity.’

 The Uyghur music channel plays hit after folky saccharin hit on all the buses.

I’m probably crude with heat, ‘Do you like the Chinese government?’

‘Yes, it is better here now, more than it was’

‘The government build hospitals, there are more schools now. I can study and become a doctor. There are basketball stadiums now like there are in Beijing’.

If you think it sounds scripted… have you ever talked to a complete stranger from far off lands about your city, or the problems of your city? We write these scripts for simplicity’s sake.

Ehmet’s dad smiles as we inch along the hot tarmac. I want to tell him that the impotence of this rented golf cart doesn’t affect my opinion of him.

We slow to walking pace, and then a little slower and it feels too absurd to stay in the cart any longer. We dismount and walk the rest of the way along the promenade.

Through the high-noon hot metal of the funfair we’re in the truck again, drinking ice cold cream sodas with relish, they are the freshly shucked oysters of this urban desert.

I cut my losses, it has been fun but I can’t afford to spend any longer in this city. I thank Ehmet and his father, and they drop me off where they had found me. Back to my purgatory, the only difference being the high and hot midday sun and a welcome pot of delicious raspberry jam. Upon my high praises of the stuff, Ehmet’s mum had pressed it into my hands.

Stasis bores its entropy into my mind and in the name of progress I think to walk a few steps up the road.

I’m a few hundred metres closer to Aksu. Sheltering in the transient shade of a tall tree. A child plays outside of the house behind me and an old lady sits in the doorway, her head robed in a colourful scarf. I think they are trying to decide if I am a mirage or some life changing omen.

I want to avoid being picked up by another driver on their way home so I am standing at the end of the road where it joins the roar of traffic on the highway heading West. I know that I’m not going to get to Aksu today, but I want to put some miles between me and this city. I like it, but it is too heavy.

Another. A regular looking white car pulls up ahead. It waits. I hesitate a few second before running to catch it up. Inside are three men. Two probably in their late twenties, another a bit older and in a cop’s uniform. They all have dark complexions and unkempt faces, but the driver has bright green eyes and a handsome, chiselled face They look like a gang of bank robbers perhaps, or a small group of heavies. They have that kind of boisterous anger. They seem to find me curious. They have an expression that makes them look like kids who’ve been bought a new toy but want to seem cool about it.

I get in. The negotiations begin. Their Chinese is surprisingly bad for a group of young men. But the driver doesn’t seem to want to listen anyway. He’s insisting on calling up his mate to translate – his English is really good apparently. It is, but there’s still confusion. No, absolutely no buses. I feel a little demanding, not taking a bus like everyone else. But I really don’t want to take a bus.

We’re still uncertain, but I think I should get in the car with them. I think they understand where I want to go, I suppose I’ll see whether they feel inclined to take me some way along the road. I’m happy to get out of the sun.

The handsome driver, Sagardan is taking us to a friend’s house just before the slip road onto the highway. A residential area I must have overlooked. We drive for a minute. There is an episode of Star Trek where the crew get trapped in a virtual reality hotel – they walk out of revolving doors only to find themselves back in the lobby.

Children run out to meet us – a flurry of nameless activity, hand are shaken, we are ushered in. As-salamu alaykum, As-salamu alaykum. Wa-Alaikum-us-Salaam. They are surprisingly un-phased by my presence. They react with a sense of cognitive dissonance, like finding something you thought you had lost suddenly in your back pocket.

A dusty white courtyard, desiccated particles of the desert wind and general detritus. A dog barks. Bird guano stings my nostrils, its thick stench rising from metal cages and a concrete floor peppered with chicken shit. A wall of wire cages in which high-breasted cocks strut around, their plumage desecrated with angry bald spots.  They are fighting cocks, and my friends have a familiar argument with the short, fat man who seems to own the chickens.

Back in the car. The cop clutching a chicken, frozen in foreboding silence. He says it’s for eating and I guess it could be.

I ask where we are going.

‘We just need to take my friends to their homes’ is the answer.

‘And kuche? I need to go to kuche. If you can help me at all – I don’t have much time’.

‘Yes, yes, I will take you don’t worry, just this first – you’re English, how much is the pound worth compared to the renminbi?’

‘Will we go to kuche after this?’

‘Yes, yes, don’t worry’

The two guys in the back grin like bachelors on a stag.

Thing is, I do worry. I appreciate the twists and turns of fortune’s road as much as any man, but I resent my impotence. Tossed like a plastic bag in the wind. Worse, a sentient plastic bag, whose sense of purpose is mute, unknown to the oblivious observor. My leg is jiggling up and down in unreasonable frustration. I feel a little angry, pissed off at these friendly kidnappers. Resenting the language gap, and most likely Sagardan’s willing incomprehension. That’s the trouble, you can hide behind unspoken languages – I’m sorry I’m English – that’s currency worldwide.

Through the outskirts of the city, flat yellow houses, tall trees and empty roads.

The chicken-cop has gone. We’ve stopped off at the remaining friend’s house, just for refreshments. Saccharin sweet, broken ice, perfumed with something, strongly sweet, thirst quenching on a day like today.

Sagardan’s place isn’t far. Again those carved wooden doors which open onto a dusty courtyard. A small, adorable child and a tired, beautiful woman walk out and Sargardan introduces me to his little kid.

He looks too young to have a family, and perhaps it’s a reflection on myself, but I suspect he is pretending at it somehow.

Inside, my eyes take more than a few moments to adjust from the star-hot sun to the dark interior of the room. The floor is carpeted with a raised section even more heavily carpeted in thick rugs, which cling to the warm air – there are cushioned piled high and in every crevice.

The low table comes to me like a line of text appearing from an often read book, these tables are always groaning under an assortment of snack in glass bowls: brown sugar crystals like chipped rock; dried and candied fruits, nuts; sweet, dry pastries; sweets still in their wrappers; bowls of salty fried and dried dough sangza; dried little colored cookies; pumpkin seeds; melon seeds, inexhaustible food that seems to sit eternally waiting the arrival of guests. We take off our shoes and Sargardan asks me to sit.

The door opens, a blinding chink of light, cut into the dank and coziness of the room. Sagardan’s wife comes bearing tea and plates of steaming dumplings.

We sit and drink tea and I am ruined by my greedy eyes and the fat, groaning table. The conversation is slower than I’d like. How have I found Xinjiang? Do I think the people friendly? These are the questions they’re asking. They want to know how I see them I suppose.

 ‘I do not speak Chinese very well, but I don’t like to speak Chinese anyway’, Sagardan is telling me.

Back East they say ‘zhong wen’ which I suppose means ‘Chinese language’, they sometimes say ‘pu tong hua’, meaning common tongue, the ‘pu tong’ meaning common, the ‘hua’ meaning speak. They sometimes say ‘han yu’, named for the han ethnic minority.

The further West you go, the more you hear ‘han yu’, the less you hear ‘zhong wen’ and ‘pu tong hua’. Uyghur people you call ‘wei zu’, the ‘zu’ is ‘ethnic group. So ‘han zu’ are the hans.

I think of this only because Sagardan doesn’t say ‘hanyu’. He says ‘han zu hua’. I’ve never heard that before.

With my usual tact I ask him why he doesn’t like to speak Chinese, what he thinks of the Chinese.

‘I don’t follow them, they tell us what to do, I don’t follow them’

‘You don’t like the government,’ I’m saying this with a smile, to disarm it maybe.

‘I hate them’.

He speaks this in English. As he said it he raised both his middle fingers to the floor, now fingers still raised, he just says ‘fuck’. But not like an exclamation, more like the ‘you’ is silent.

They’re laughing like naughty schoolboys, but with a randy anger that I’m sure lives not far beneath the surface.

 It isn’t uncomfortable, there just doesn’t seem much else to say.

‘Do you like this music?’ Sargardan says, changing a track on the CD player.

We’re in the car again, and I don’t know where we are going.

I’ve reconciled myself to driving around with these almost young youths by now.

I admit that I like the music. ‘Is it Uyghur?’.

It’s all Uyghur music, but it’s good.

Sagardan is driving fast. Slappy twang of long necked guitars and a foreign Turkic warble of energetic – hand clapping – thigh slapping music – it lends a little beauty to the dust and broken road. I wind down my window and enjoy that there’s a breeze.

Windows down, ethnic music blasting, rocketing down narrow suburban-country roads.

‘Have you seen the Yili river?’

‘Yes, yes I have. I’ve seen the Yili river…’

Ah, the Yili river. It could be a euphemistic come-on, sounds like Polari. ‘Have you seen the Yili river yet?’

‘Have you swum in the ili river?’


‘We’ll go for a swim there now’

‘I don’t have any swimming clothes’ I say

‘No problem’. I don’t know why it isn’t a problem, but Sargardan’s got under my skin, he’s the master of my will, and it’s not too bad. Sargardan pulls down his shades and focuses his muscular, square face on the road. I lean mine out of the window to catch some more breeze.

Here the roads aren’t really roads and the car throws up yellow dust – there are tall reeds growing by the side of the river as far as the eye can see – until the eye sees a gaggle of half naked youths further up stream. They jump into the river and are snatched away, towards us downstream, at tremendous speed.

Sagardan has what can only be called a mischievous grin on his face.

They all strip down to their underpants. The large group of teens up the river are jumping into the mud black waters, three to a rubber ring.

Sagardan just dives from the nearest bank.

He must have been here before, countless times, else he’s just reckless.

He resurfaces in the middle of the river some several metres down, swimming furiously against the river’s might. Then he surrenders and floats on his bank, drifting out of sight behind the forest of reeds.

He had looked joyful rather than worried, so I assume he hasn’t drowned.

He reappears dripping wet, running up the road and urging me to take off my clothes. The water looks thick with mud, spun with speed into some vicious eddies.

Sagardan is excited about a race to the far bank. I tell him he’s crazy. This will go nowhere. I jump in where he shows me.

 I try to keep my eyes and mouth shut. I teleport. Resurface far from where I’d jumped in. I’m literally part of something bigger than myself and it gives no two fucks about my orientation in space. An immense body, I am carried in it’s all pervasive arms, the constancy of land and its dry hot power, obliterated. I can see the pleasure of this place. The apocalyptic heat soothed by this cold. A body like an aching and tired muscle, this cold water a salve.

We join the teens up river for a while. Sagardan commandeers their rubber ring. We cannonball down the river, three of us slumped pathetic with our arses touching back to back in the hole. Sagardan and his friend fall out with pantomime accident and leave me hurtling towards the city. Somehow I claw myself back to the shore, ring under arm, Sagardan thinking it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.

We are drying on the river’s bank like a wet frying pan on the stove, mud caching to my toes. Sagardan’s still a joyful little boy – but the hot sun is crinkling my skin, and the roar of the Yili reminds me of the hour of the day. Sagardan is slapping me on the back and urging an encore. It’s not that I don’t want the chilling lick of the river’s depths, so we hurtle down the river again together. But when we climb to the shore again we start drying off with intention – drinking the cans of sweet iced cream soda we’ve brought along.

In the car again, I ask Sagardan where we are headed, can he take me to Kuche, I say out of debt to a ritual.

 We just need to pick up a friend, the English friend I spoke to on the phone. He’s wearing a shirt and smart trousers by the train station – I say hello – he’s just been for a job interview, he seems a nice guy, quiet, a little less of a bad boy than his friends – the geek of the group.

I ask Saggardan what he does for a living – he doesn’t have a job at the moment. Neither does his chubby friend. I don’t press it; they seem a little embarrassed. I think about this.

The English speaking friend is nice enough and his English is really great – but I feel exposed, the excitement of earlier has passed. Friends are made and lost more easily when all you have are smiles and simple sentences.

With fluency comes niceties and reluctance. And the true weight behind words is diluted again. More there. No silence to hide behind. No excuse to let something dead drop. He no more understands my dumb hitchhiking because he speaks the same language.

It’s clear now that I’m not going to Kuche, but me and Sagardan have silence to forgive us our sins.

Yining has changed since morning, not the city of yesterday, but not of today either. I feel I have something more to leave. But I still want to leave this city in the dust. Drive through the night.

To the bus.

 ‘Maybe there is no bus’ Sagardan says

‘He doesn’t know if there will be a bus, at this time, but let us go to the bus station and we can see’, his English friend elaborates.

The bus. Hurtling and then creeping, and then just going, but always going.

At the bus station, just a parking space next to the highway, Sagardan rushes around, interrogating on my behalf.

 I’ve missed the last one going the right way apparently.

Sagardan is telling me that I can stay with him and his family, for a night, a few days – he’s said it a few times already today, but now it seems the practical thing to do.

‘Thank you so much Sagardan,  you have been so kind to me’ I say

There is no bus. Staying with my new friend in his house would be far from awful. He’d feed me well and we’d laugh some more.

But to let the city claim another victim.

How I know there were more before me, I do not know. But there were.

I tell him I’ll wait – There is still hope.

I say goodbye to my friends, and find another tall tree, whose shade will shelter my burnt and sticky body for the while.

Old men watch me, they while away time in plastic chairs, waiting for no bus. An hour passes.

Then the bus – As it always does and always will.

Standing now, straining to see the sign in the window.

I ask the driver – a silver haired fighter pilot of this dead, dead road.

Not perfect, not nearly so. But roughly the right compass point.

I buy a ticket and stow my luggage in the hold. Everything is smothered in dust. I climb the stairs and look upon the faces of my fellow travellers.

We pull away from the station. Yining is behind me.


Multiculturalism: The Swedish Democrats

[This is an interview originally published in summer 2016]

“Multiculturalism”. The man sitting across from me hates the word.

There is something youthful about him, despite his dark suit and serious, angular face. He’s a little nervous. This is the first interview he’s given in English, but as soon as he starts speaking he seems to grow a few years older.

He is the chairman for the Swedish Democrats in this small municipality of Stockholm. The Swedish Democrats are part of something – ‘part of a trend in the whole of Europe’ he says: the AfD in Germany, the DPP in neighboring Denmark, Austria’s FPÖ, the Front National and Le Pen, UKIP and Nigel Farage.

They are, collectively, the ‘rise of the right’ in Europe. Dramatic, but true – in the past decade they’ve been there to make up ground lost by the centre left. Europe’s migrant crisis has only hastened their march onto mainstream political ground. The success of a “populist” national party is particularly shocking in supposedly lefty Scandinavia, but as early as fifteen years ago the Danish People’s Party was voicing its opinion that immigration, multiculturalism and Islam were alien to Danish values. Throughout the 2000’s minority coalition governments in Denmark were beholden to the DPP and during this period Denmark’s immigration policy became one of the strictest in Europe.

Sweden now seems set to follow Denmark’s example. According to Pavle, my Swedish Democrat chairman, the SD’s fortunes have undergone a sea change in the past few years:

“After the first election, 2010, it was mayhem, ten thousand or so people came out to demonstrate against us after we had entered parliament. But after the second election in 2014, after we were still in parliament, people kind of got used to us, we’re there, we’re part of it”

In 2014 the Swedish Democrats came second, taking 13% of the popular vote compared to the ruling Social Democratic’s 30%. A poll last August even found that more Swedes identify with the Swedish Democrats than any other party.

“These days you can say openly that you are Sweden Democrat – in some places you will still lose your job – but it is getting much better than before”.

Concurrent with their increasingly warm public reception was the weeding out of ‘anti-democratic tendencies’, ‘nationalist tendencies, blunt nationalism so to speak’. For years now, the SD’s leader, Jimmie Åkesson, has led a “moderating” campaign: shaking off the party’s quasi-Fascist grassroots, excommunicating their yobbish youth party and publicly ousting ‘extremists’. In the process of becoming a legitimate contender in the Riksdag they have also taken stances on the economy, foreign policy and security issues.

But Pavle’s distaste for multiculturalism is still the mainstay of his party’s political platform. Their popularity, and their passion, derives from their ‘nationalist foundation’ and a concept of ‘open Swedishness’, which compliments their anti-immigration stance with a strict assimilationist  policy.


“It depends on how you define it, but as generally considered, you, through political decisions – I won’t say force – but make people of different cultures live side by side – I think this is – I don’t know if there is an english equivalent of the word I am looking for… but it is a desktop ideology. Something that works well on paper, but doesn’t work well in practice. So yeah, I get mostly negative associations when I hear the word multiculturalism – because of what we have seen with the rapid increase in crime. It doesn’t work. Just like Communism looks good on paper – workers of the world unite – try it in the real world, it leads to oppression.”

But Pavle wasn’t born a member of the Swedish Democrats. Ten years ago the grandson of Serbian immigrants was a Social Democrat. His conversion was ‘a long process of discovery’.

“It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time or event that triggered, maybe opened my eyes to it. But one day, I – just didn’t recognize the Sweden I grew up in. It felt like a different country somehow. It’s this sense of Swedish society that made me realize something had to be done. That there is this value worth preserving… I am from one of the worst suburbs of Stockholm, when it comes to crime, I think one year, 7 or 8 years ago, it ranked top of the country in stabbings per capita or something. So I grew up around here. And as I went to school I could feel the propaganda of – being world citizens instead of Swedes, of the United Nations – We are just singing Kumbaya my Lord, and somewhere along the road I felt – this isn’t right – I mean, first and foremost we should be Swedes, and then some sort of global citizen.”

And it’s a cliche to say so, but it is a familiar story. A third of the electorate identify with Pavle’s party. Many more value his ‘sense of Swedish society’ and see immigration as a threat. And this wave of right wing, anti-consensus outrage, this hostility to globalization, which offers classless identity politics and a promise of security against a perceived clash of civilizations, this is familiar too – across Europe it is familiar.

Pavle and his colleagues see themselves as victims of Sweden’s political culture. If the lefty Scandy image is outdated in Denmark, it is perhaps still applicable in Sweden, which is mocked by Norway and Denmark for its politcal correctness. There is an expression in Swedish, “asiktskorridor”, which means “opinion corridor”, it refers to the narrow range of opinions one is allowed to have. Raising questions about immigration used to inevitably welcome accusations of racism. That is changing, but not fast enough for Pavle.

“We don’t have the same kind of free speech that the US has – and this is my own personal theory – but I think the reason is a combination of seventy years of social democratic rule in combination with Jante’s law, which is a Swedish cultural phenomenon, the idea that a society must be equal, in spite of individual success – I think 70 years of leftist rule is to blame”

The uniformity of Swedish society and its decades long practice of consensus politics might have helped foster an atmosphere particularly hostile to perceived racism, but the political correctness which irks Pavle is native to all lands. In January Swedish police were embroiled in a cover up of sex attacks by refugees at a music festival, but the reluctance of authorities to point the finger at migrants in Cologne last year was just as disturbing.

The migrant crisis has tested the sympathies of the left to breaking point – one Foreign Policy article proclaims ‘the death of the most generous nation on earth’. Anti-immigrant rhetoric has become normalized in ‘humanitarian superpowers’ like Sweden, where once it was strictly taboo.

Assimilationist strategies have failed in France and Belgium; long neglected immigrant groups former colonies are being further alienated, pushed from their grandfathers’ secularism into an increasingly popular sense of global Muslim identity. Multiculturalist strategies in Britain, until the backlash against them circa mid 2000s, have likewise failed.

Whether or not you blame the failure of civil society in integration, or a mistake in policy. Whether or not you even recognize a problem, the rhetoric is there, the narrative has already been set in motion. A fearful electorate yearn for a culturally based national identity they perceive as incompatible with Islam and the Other. Second and third generation immigrants are further alienated and see the global Muslim identity as a serious alternative. The stage has been set for a clash of civilizations, and recent historical events have only exacerbated this feedback loop.

Lefties cling to their own form of identity politics. In Sweden and Germany especially they are rightly sensitive to any whiff of Fascism. But the SD maybe have a point: this reactionary stance immediately associates even the softest nationalism with racism, while immigrants are untouchable and blameless embodiments of humanitarian values which form a part of this political identity.

Next year Sweden will spend 7% of its budget on refugees, and they have already run out of room. The migrant crisis could have been a major success story for the EU, but it wasn’t. Uncomfortably for Sweden’s left, the SD’s argument, that mass immigration is untenable, is at a certain point. it’s truth is part of the reason the SD have gained so much traction. But this reality comes packaged with questions of identity. A growing number of people find their traditionally homogenous culture under an existential demographic threat. But if ideology is dead and identity politics rules the roost, then the left takes for its identity the same globally minded, liberal perspective that the right eschew. Some form of “Multiculturalism” is a central tenet of this identity and both ends of the spectrum see the changes in their country very differently.

Rinkeby is a an area of Stockholm famous for its dense and largely poor immigrant population. It is nicknamed ‘little Mogadishu’ by Swedes of a certain mentality. It has become a symbol for the erosion of Swedish cultural identity, a hub of hostile otherness within. In 2010 immigrant youths in Rinkeby attacked the police station, rioted and set fires outside the metro. This year an Australian TV crew were attacked in Rinkeby and the incident was caught on camera.  Depending upon who you talk to, these sort of incidents are typical of immigrant behavior in Rinkeby and across Sweden.

The square outside Rinkeby metro station is perhaps a little more drab than other areas of central Stockholm, but its a far cry from the worst areas of other European cities. There is a small outdoor vegetable market and a shopping mall. A curry house sits on the corner, next to a few clothing shops selling hijabs and a money transfer building. Most of the space in the square is occupied by small cafes, they sell filter coffee to groups of men who sit outside smoking and chatting in Arabic. The older men sit at tables, some gesticulating wildly, others sitting in silence. The teenagers stand, back to the wall of a convenience store, smoking hashish. The coffee is bad, but cheap and served out of huge carafes – these aren’t the sort of places you pop in for a caramel latte. You linger here all day, chewing the cud, and since it is 2pm on a Tuesday, the implication must be that these men have a lot of free time on their hands.

Many people I’d met in Stockholm had warned me not to venture into the badlands of Rinkeby, ‘I advise against it’ says Pavle:

“As far as I’ve gathered they can be skeptical to people of a lighter skin tone – last time I was there, I got a bit shouted out to be honest, and I am not even ethnically Swedish.”

Rinkeby is dominated by first and second generation immigrants. The language you hear most is Arabic, and it is obviously a predominantly Muslim area. A Swede who values a certain Swedish ‘cultural identity’, one which excludes Arabic speaking Muslims, would undoubtedly feel out of place here. According to some reports, they might even feel threatened.

After I had finished talking to Pavle, a young man who had been sitting on a table nearby told me:

“Don’t listen to that guy. His opinions are – they are not the right opinions. You should go there, to Rinkeby. What he was saying is just something people like him like to say. I have a friend, a white friend who has lived in Rinkeby for two years. It is a very multicultural place but it is not violent.”

As I was standing outside, drinking my plastic cup of coffee, one of the hashish smoking group approached me and asked something in Swedish. He was aggressive, but not angry. His friends were laughing, slightly embarrassed and so I took him for a harmless joker as he frisked my jacket. Was I being robbed? was he pretending to rob me? I said that I didn’t speak Swedish. I put up my hands as he had asked me to do, and he soon lost interest. He walked away and the oldest of the group told me:

“It is a prank! Don’t worry, it is a prank. He wanted to see if you are a cop.” He laughed and asked me where I am from. I told him, and he asked me which football team I support, before asking the obvious question on everybody’s mind – “Why did you come to Rinkeby?”

Hospitality and Pig Guts: Slaughter in Hangzhou, China

I was on my way to meet the butchers.

The day was thick with smog, just as the day before had also been thick with smog.

But the day before the smog had hung heavy on the horizon as the sun set over Hangzhou’s West Lake. Each dull molecule of air was pregnant with lusty golds and tangerine reds, like firelight through woodsmoke.

When I went to meet the butchers, the sky was solid grey. The highway cut through the smog as the mountains loomed in the distance, half seen. No bright light beat through, as it sometimes does, to reveal suddenly the stark creases of a nearby mountain’s flank. Instead, peaks of ambiguous shade unfurled across the flat land like the unfolding edges of the known earth.

The cranes, which outnumbered cars on the highway, coaxed fledgling tower blocks through the haze. Not long ago, Anji County and its 60,000 hectares of bamboo were relatively hard to reach from the rest of Zhejiang province. But the turn of the century saw smooth asphalt open up the county. It takes just 60 minutes from the center of Hangzhou before you find yourself climbing tree-lined roads and following the sharp angles of mountain paths.

Most of the houses in the village had driveways, most were blockish, some larger and colder than others, made from fresh breezeblocks, with that outdated catalogue-order feel these places can have. Big and nice by all means, but full of new space, harbouring that very Chinese contrast to the ramshackle detritus of something still living, of grey bamboo and corrugated iron. Men in flat caps and duffel jackets stood by a wooden bench and a large bucket cut from half a barrel. They watched us drive up with self-assured but curious smiles. Some had faces and deep wrinkles, others had hair still free of black hair dye or strands of grey.

Foggy Farm in Hangzhou China

A smiling ‘hello’, in that peculiar tone of voice; the amused lilt of a voice bearing an unfamiliar word. I understood that they had been waiting for us some time, and as soon as we were out of the car it began. Three men, two in aprons, presumably the butchers, strode across mud tracked concrete to a white building, and from the black of the interior began to drag a screaming sow. It was over within a minute, but the lack of commencement or distinction swelled the moments from the passage of time like burnt skin.

The pitch and volume of the pig’s screams shattered thought and we swam briefly in the immediacy of another creature’s terror. The sow lay flat to the floor and pushed against the ground with all the might of its short limbs, but fell forward, coaxed by a hook through its nose, pulled by a rope wound across its foot, and prompted by a man at the rear, holding its tail. It died still screaming on the bench, the sound diminishing with the roar of unearthly bright blood from its throat, which steamed in the cold air. My adrenaline left to ebb as it gave its death jerks, flinging fresh faeces from its rear towards a man, who dodged the turd with perfect timing. My nervous laughter joined theirs.

The blood flow subsided, a small bucket now full with the rich, velvety liquid of perfect consistency, warm and thick. The large tub now needed to be filled. The three men worked quickly, pouring water from paint buckets. Another man joked to me that the pig would soon be taking a nice bath. Too hot and the skin would be affected, too cold and the pig’s tough bristles would not come off. The pig slumped into the tub, it’s body comically bunched, eyes closed and head cocked to the side as if passed out drunk. They worked with rusted knives and a small sheet of sharp metal, the bristles falling from the pig with satisfying ease, collecting on the floor in small blonde tufts.

The spectacle had drawn as many dogs as men, some raggedy and skittish. They chewed over the pigs hair, tasting flakes of skin. When the sow’s nails came to be pulled from the soft flesh beneath, the dogs chewed them too. The men then cut the bridge between the pig’s nostrils, forming a makeshift handle from which to haul it onto a wooden bench.

The hair follicles around the mouth and neck were different from those on the pig’s body. To remove these bristles the men softened them with a stone, bludgeoning the skull and jaw with rapid thuds. Once the pig lay hairless, smooth and firm to the touch, they removed the head. Their knives had that dull and ancient rust, but also the weight and practical edge of a knife used day in, day out, as an extension of the arm. The hole in the pig’s neck made way to a deepening gash that left the head hanging, and it was cut off, saved in a plastic bucket.

Starting from the anus, their knives puckered skin and slid through the thick layer of white fat, opening the animal like a zipless coat, shiny organs nestled inside. The pig was hung from a hook, on top of a sturdy bamboo ladder, and the cut  was continued until the wormy treasures inside were visible. These were pulled from the cavity and one man set to tearing the valuable organ fat from the rubbery tissue. The white jelly separated, he began the task of emptying the intestines into the pig’s old bath water. He massaged the partially digested nuggets towards a hole he had cut, and once the bulk had been vacated, the sagging tissue was rinsed in the brown slop. A woman took these skins to the small river below. I watched her crouch by the mountain stream. She rinsed and wrung what could have easily been laundry, were it not for its purple capillaries and water resistant sheen.

Pig Guts About to Be Washed in a Hangzhou River

The man at the cadaver dug his hands into the pig’s chest as it hung from the hook, slopping out a surge of rich, dark colored blood into a bucket below. His hands found the weighty lungs and heart of the animal, and began working on the rest of the organs. Before long the sow had become two – one half still hung from the hook, while the other lay on a wooden bench. A man in a flat cap passed out smokes, handing me a stubby cigarette with a brown filter – an expensive local brand that tastes silky and sits heavy on your lungs. The butcher worked with a cigarette in his mouth, hacking with blows that were precise, but seemed rash, and ever close to his own long-fingered flesh.

The back-seat butchering began, my host at the event pointing to this and that hunk of meat, the butcher replying, and the men around the bench chiming in, arguing over the best cuts.

He pointed vigorously at a section of rib, which was cut and then ushered into one of the many bags assorted on the floor. There were old grain sacs, supermarket bags, and black plastic bin liners. They were filled quickly with their assigned cuts of meat – the butcher working with casual ease and lazy success, skimming fat from skin, cleaving joint from joint, and at one point answering a retro brick phone which rang with a jaunty tune from an apron pocket. The sow had unseeingly completed her destiny; in about an hour she had made the transition from snorting, eating and breathing, to bags of ribs, belly fat, pork loin, sausage skin and pig’s foot, amassed in the boot of a car like the aftermath of a mafia execution.

The family whose car was laden with organ meat could afford to eat nothing but the finest cuts of pork loin if they wished, but in the city they slaughtered and plucked their own geese for drying. Not out of organic and Locivore impulses, but because they know how and it tastes good. Chinese eating habits are universally insistent on the application of every piece of skin and giblet, sometimes to the exclusion of conventional looking meat, a fact that perplexes strangers in China.

Pig’s feet, sheep’s feet, chicken feet, large and small intestine, ribbons of feathery organs, starfish, scorpions and cheesy silk worm explosions, turtle, frog and penis, dog’s tongue and duck larynx, they are all on offer, sometimes in various unappealing states in touristy night markets. But the village banquet style lunch is also rife with opportunity.

After the meat had been divided, we were invited to one of the larger houses, further up the winding road. We sat down to eat with the owner’s brothers and father in a huge but low ceilinged room which seemed more municipal function room than home – sparse furniture arranged waiting room style, a gratuitously large TV that was always on. The grandfather sat opposite me at the round table, two sons either side. The table fit 10 or so people, yet more than that flitted to and from the meal. The kids grazed, and new arrivals, including one of the butchers, came to sit at the table and eat. Once or twice Grandma took a break from her work replenishing the dishes to sit and eat herself. She raised her glass as she did so, gulping down the 100 proof moonshine.

She laughed at my accent and when I complemented her cooking it was as if a grandchild had spoken his first words. A spritely ball of indomitable strength, you had the feeling that if you saw her cry it might destroy you. A rock of pleasantries and comforting coos, advice and passing comments. She gave that impression, universal to tough old grandmas, that her apparent lack of depth was underwritten by a wisdom forged throughout a pretty tumultuous lifespan. In China, these elders are like time-travelers or celestial beings.

The dishes were many, and summoned to the table so perfectly upon our casual arrival that it was as if we had made an appointment. Fat hunks of ‘mountain pig sat in red cooked sauce and tasted pungently meaty, their tender flesh dark and moreish. I was guided towards a rabbit stew that was also delicious, but I was warned against eating the juicy leeks – their function was merely to flavor the meat. Among the dozen or so fresh dishes on the table, the pig feet stood out. Sheep’s feet in particular seem to carry with them an unflattering barnyard floor flavor, a musky, almost cheesy gelatin depth – you chew the thick skin from a bone that looks comically similar to the actual fact of what you are eating. These trotter’s carried the same odour and deep flavour, but were flesh rather than thick skin padding. More than anything they were overwhelmingly salty, though the meat melted in the mouth.

We ate banquet style, picking over our food slowly but in perpetual motion, sipping hot tea, dragging on cigarettes, finding another tasty morsel, and frequently standing to toast one another at the table. Cigarettes, dishes and especially toasts were thrown generously in my direction. I suggested that they wanted to see me drunk, and they laughed, but no one denied it. The spirit was green tasting. An unmasked alcoholic donkey kick. The sickly sweet baijiu taste that you grow to love, partly out of eventual familiarity, and partly out of respect and fear. We happily sipped through a couple of 2 litre Sprite bottles of baijiu. I sat cemented to my chair, sweet tobacco smoke on my lungs and sticky baijiu coursing through my veins. While I melted into warm laughter and conversation, characters arrived and disappeared into the mountain smog.

Pig Kept on a Hangzhou Farm

In the Han dynasty, a tradition evolved to keep the Emperor’s hands clean and his spirit pure of guilt: if an official committed a capital offense against the emperor, he was expected to commit suicide rather than await the Emperor’s sentence. To plead innocence was a pointless and awkward gesture. So when the butcher sat with us, I toasted him and those around the table in a pre-emptive strike against myself.

As the lunch bled into the drunken afternoon, I was ushered into a car. We drove further up the mountain road, dogs running behind us. The car stopped and one of the men I had been talking to at dinner got out and beckoned me to follow him.

We were visiting the largest house I had seen on the small mountain road. The dark and marble floored atrium was vast, the walnut wood furniture was cushioned in fake beige-orange leather. The man grinned and his mother came downstairs at the sound of footsteps, smiled a shy greeting and went to fetch the tea. We sat briefly and sipped the hot tea before he became animated with another idea – he walked towards a bookshelf and began to spread several rolls of calligraphy across the table. This enthusiasm, from a man at least twice my age, was touching, but it made me feel namelessly sad as well.

He rolled and secured with a rubber band an especially beautiful piece of his work, handing it to me with a grin. Every society on earth has something to say about hospitality, most claim it as their specialty, Welsh mining towns and mountain villages in Hangzhou alike. But no matter how expected it becomes, this generosity is the engine of that sublime spark of connection between strangers. Compensating with smiles and cigarettes, and another helping, for that vast distance between people. The further apart and the harder we try, the sweeter it feels, the stranger the stranger, the stronger the liquor, the wider the smiles. With the help of a full belly, and the potency of homemade liquor, it’s a beautiful thing.

I drifted in between dreams as the car home forged its way across the highway, returning through the quieting mountains to Hangzhou. My friend was at the metro station and as dusk settled I rode on the back of his moped through the industrial/higher education sprawl of Xiasha district. That Sunday night I prolonged my baijiu haze as we sunk beers and shared dishes across a tissue papered table. We had found our way to one of the many indistinguishable cheap eateries that lay thrown across the dark, neon and garbage painted alleys, the light was stark and straw yellow, naked bulbs and pitifully low alcohol beers that were nonetheless endless.

On the way out to dinner I’d taken the subject of my day’s activity to practice my Chinese with the cab driver. He’d laughed and asked me if the pig was tasty, told me what I’d already known: that homebrew was strong stuff. I tried my luck again as I made my way home alone. The driver was frosty, and the photo I’d shown him on my phone didn’t have the desired reaction. The man didn’t eat meat, and beneath his greasy bundle of hair his small face wore a blank expression, slightly tinged with disgust. Unable to recall the word for Buddhist, I asked him whether it was because he liked ‘Sakyamuni’.

I can’t quite be sure, but as I left I think he warned me ‘not to play around here’. Whether he meant in his taxi, in his country, or on this mortal plane, I do not know. I began to make an account of my crimes as I rode the elevator to my apartment. And sitting alone in my concrete tower, drunk and ashamed by the taxi driver’s condemnation, I wrinkled my eyebrows as he had wrinkled his, and scowled as he had scowled.

In the Footprints of The Leopard

“The coachmen were walking the horses slowly around to freshen them up before watering, the lackeys laying table-cloths out on straw left over from the threshing, in the oblong of shade from the building. Luncheon began near the accommodating well. All round quivered the funereal countryside, yellow with stubble, black with burnt patches; the lament of cicadas filled the sky. It was like a death-rattle from parched Sicily at the end of August vainly awaiting rain.”

The Leopard, Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa


Bisacquino, Sicily

Sequestered amongst the parched patchwork of Sicily’s barren interior, Bisacquino is the sort of village that can only be stumbled upon. No one ever sets out to see Bisaquino, mostly on account of the fact that there is nothing there to see. Its greatest charm is its timelessness, the sense of its being a place which has slipped through the cracks of modernity.

There are only two bars in the village, which face each other from opposing ends of the central square, Piazza Triona. One to the easternmost side, the other to the west. On the northern edge of the square squats la chiesa madre, an impressive limestone church in the Sicilian Baroque style from 1713; on the south, an unfortunate 5 storey concrete apartment block that is entirely incongruous to its surroundings. In between stands an ornate marble fountain, as if in mediation between two parties of an unhappy and ill-matched marriage.

The village itself is set about halfway up the side of an awkward feature of topography which sits somewhere in the liminality between large hill and small mountain. Accordingly, Bisacquino sits at an angle, as if tilting over the pastureland and vineyards beneath.

The westernmost bar in the piazza, Caffe Triona, is, arguably, superior on account of its slightly greater altitude and the views that it commands of the church, the fountain and the gentle undulations of yellow and green which roll away behind towards the next, prettier village of Giuliana. The easternmost bar, whose name I neither noticed nor remembered, sits for most of the day in the shadow of the piazza’s aberrant tower block. Both are modest, functional, low-ceilinged places; the bartenders carry themselves with authentic disinterest, but maintain the characteristically Sicilian propensity towards acts of absurd generosity. Both offer the standard selection of wine, beer, arancine, gelati and cannoli that seem to be on offer in every other Sicilian watering hole.

The easternmost bar, however, boasts a claim to its own small but certain foothold in European literary history. It is at Bisacquino that Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina and the eponymous Leopard of Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s renowned 1958 novel, stops for the third night of his arduous journey from Palermo to Donnafugata, the grandiose ancestral home of the House of Salina. Troubled by the winds of change as the Italian Risorgimento gathered momentum, the Prince of Salina, nickname The Leopard, realises he must adapt to the times or risk the demise of the established feudal order which had prevailed in Sicily for centuries.

The building which now houses the bar on the eastern end of Piazza Triona had once upon a time been a guest house, and it was here that “the Prince had found thirteen flies in his glass of granita, while a strong smell of excrement drifted in from the street and the privy next door”.

Or so the story goes. This was what I was told by my hosts during my time in the Sicilian interior. They were a genial couple who seemed to take a not insubstantial amount of pride in recounting the one detail of their daily reality which had been caught up in the dragnet of history, their home and way of living fleetingly reflected on the pages of a great work of literature.

In truth, there really is no way of verifying that it was in this building that the great Prince slept and picked flies from his granita. A close reading of the book itself yields little evidence of this being so. To my mind, this is unimportant, a mere quibble, insofar as the story has now ossified into a local truth, and provides yet another layer of varnish to the already thick coating of culture, history and folklore that frames Bisacquino’s ancient landscape. As the Leopard says, “Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily; a fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished.” It seems the most natural thing to cling on to vestiges to the past as a source of coherence in the present.

The Long Way Down

I spent 10 torpid days at Bisacquino. We languished through the long afternoons in a large country house beyond the edge of the village. Time slackened under the suffocating heat and blinding brightness of the Sicilian sun, the only audible sounds being the occasional breeze washing lazily over the endless stretches of golden wheat and through the stripped avenues of vines that decorate the gently rippling hills.

Whilst our rented home was not possessed of even a fraction of the grandeur of Don Fabrizio’s ancestral palace, Donnafugata, which was flattened by American bombs in 1943, our journey from Palermo to Bisacquino had been comparable to the Prince’s in terms of arduousness. After touching down at Palermo airport towards midnight, our first glimpse of island life soon became farcical and testing.

The car hire centre was due to close twenty minutes after we landed, and on arrival we discovered that there was an unavoidable deposit of over 1000 EUR; more than the combined bank balances of three hapless and unemployed recent graduates. As we grappled with the horrors of Sicilian bureaucracy in a bid to prise the keys of our rental car from the tight fist of the surly padrone behind the desk, we were to receive an ominous foretaste of our nightmare journey from Palermo to Bisacquino.

A few emergency phone calls later, our dues duly paid, we were handed the reins of our noble and intrepid steed; a three door FIAT Punto. With only the large scale map printed on the back of the car hire centre’s leaflet for reference, we struck out for Bisacquino under a brilliantly bright Sicilian moon, cruising down the coastal highway with the familiar surge and rush of freedom charging the air, along with the beauty of knowing that we didn’t know where we were going.

The road to Bisacquino stopped being a road a few miles after we left the motorway. As it turned out, we were underprepared for what had nominally seemed like a two week holiday in the sun, and we had greatly overestimated the quality of Sicily’s infrastructure. Whilst the Leopard had had only a horse and carriage to contend with roads of a presumably similar state of disrepair, he had also had the benefit of local knowledge, of which we shamelessly had none. The combination of heavy rains and the hardness of the heat-baked soil meant that whole sections of the one lane road we were following through the mountains had been washed away. Left behind were uneven stretches of gravel and dust that our little car was woefully ill-equipped for.

At first the road had been a dream, a smooth, winding pathway across a landscape lit by cold moonlight. We didn’t really know where we were going, but so long as we were heading south and were guided by the occasional signpost, it didn’t really matter. So long as the road was like this for the rest of the way. But as the journey dragged on and the road deteriorated, it became necessary at regular intervals to jump out and guide our nominated driver (the only one of us with a valid driver’s licence) through the least treacherous route across each gargantuan pothole. And with each pothole that became harder to traverse came the rising anxiety; at some point we would reach an impasse, a stretch of road that our Punto would simply refuse to cross. Then we would be stuck somewhere in the Sicilian hinterland, in the heart of mafia land, miles from the closest settlement, no phone coverage, no water, no food, no map. So much for a holiday in the sun.

Arrival party

We made it out alive. Apart from the familiar sound of the Punto’s underside scraping against the tarmac and gravel as we bounced over the rough terrain, and an incident where we reversed squarely into a stone wall, the melodrama soon subsided and we reached Bisacquino without our fears of being stranded rearing its ugly head. What Google maps had told us would be a two hour journey had taken five. In our minds, we had already forfeited our deposit on the rental car, regarding it as little more than a justifiable Sicilian tax on the stupid.

As we pulled into Piazza Triona at five in the morning, we were greeted by two Carabinieri clutching uzis, duly demanding to see our passports and to know what we were doing there. Their attempts to carry themselves with aloof and commanding officialdom soon crumbled as it became clear that they couldn’t control their curiosity towards us, these three twenty-something Englishmen pulling into their sleepy little village in the early hours of the morning.

They began to ask more and more questions about who we were and where we had come from, I replying as best I could in my halting Italian. Where did we live in England? Had we been to Sicily before? Why had we chosen to come to Bisacquino? As one of them was telling us with pride of his brother, who worked as a chef in a restaurant on Piccadilly, our hosts arrived in the piazza. They had graciously agreed to meet us despite our delay in order to give us the keys and to guide us to the house we had rented. We said our goodbyes to our carabinieri friends and drove the five minutes to the house. On arrival, we each crawled into bed, cutting loose the excitement and novelty of our new surroundings.

The Sin Which Sicilians Never Forgive

Our time at the house, as mentioned, was characterised by inertia and a sluggish decadence. The days soon took on a familiar rhythm, as they will when you have nothing to do, centring around wine, food and the parching intensity of the sun, the absolute monarch perched on his throne.

This was a time of total uncertainty for me. I had recently completed my degree and was now poised like a diver on a precipice, preparing myself to take the plunge into the real world of routine and work after four years of suspended reality. The horizons of my little world were shifting dramatically, and I had very little idea what I wanted to make of it. I simultaneously craved the validation of a ‘successful’ career and the freedom that comes with having little to no responsibility, the possibility of being on the move rather than chained to a routine. Above all, I wished I could crawl back into the warm womb of indulged studenthood.

Bisacquino gave me ample space to ponder these things, as the Leopard had pondered the advent of a changing social order in Italy. I concede, of course, that there is only so far I can make comparisons between my having to grow up and get a job, and a Sicilian prince reacting to the reality of political change, but the parallels struck me nonetheless. Above all, one line rang out clear and true to me at that hinging point, as true of the personal as it might have been of the political; “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”


Time vanished, like water evaporating under the midday sun. On the last day, our host, Francesco, a kindly maths professor at the University of Palermo, offered to take us into the centre of the capital to see the town before our flight back to London. We eagerly accepted his offer and departed down the inland highway in close pursuit of his large Jeep.

Francesco had assured us that he would take us back via a different, more circuitous route, using only the tarmacked main roads, rather than the dirt tracks by which we had arrived. As it turned out, his conception of a main road was at odds with our own, and we still found ourselves contending with long stretches of gravel and pot holes that resembled bomb craters.

Yet anyone who has ever found themselves in a car in central Palermo at rush hour will know that grumbles about the quality of the roads are laughable in comparison to the  chaotic fury of that coastal city. A daily commute must somewhat resemble a head long dash through a rock fall, such is the intensity of the traffic and lack of coherence to the eyes of an innocent and unsullied Brit. Francesco seemed unfazed by it all.

Again though, we made it; we even made it without a single scratch to the car. Parking in the courtyard of Francesco’s apartment in the centre of the city, we set out on foot and spent a few hours doing what tourists do – marvelling at magnificent baroque cathedrals, eating granita in the sun by the harbour, those kinds of things. Hot, dirty and hectic in a charmingly Mediterranean way, Palermo’s allure is in its unending frenzy, in the very same way that Bisacquino’s is held in its backwater tranquillity.

The hour to leave was fast approaching and we decided to head back and complete the last stretch to the airport, perhaps leaving enough time for a couple of beers to calm any pre-flight nerves. But we soon realised that Sicily was not prepared to give us up that easily; the island had us in its grip and was holding on. Some slapdash Palermitan had chosen to park in the narrow entrance to the courtyard of Francesco’s apartment building. We were, for the foreseeable future, blocked in.

Laidback Francesco, realising that this could potentially cause some trouble, quickened his pace slightly. He began to ring the buzzers of the apartment building, speaking in a hushed and rapid tone into the intercom. A couple came out hand in hand, glanced at the car and shrugged, before strolling out into the busy street. Francesco’s attempts to track down the owner of the offending car were becoming more and more frantic with each passing minute.

Finally, after an hour of phone calls and tortured waiting, a man emerged from the building, strolled up to the car with indifference and disinterest, hopped in and sped away. The exit to the courtyard was now open to us, but Palermo’s streets were thick with traffic like arteries clogged with cholesterol. Our departure from the city was becoming painful, and the possibility of missing our flight becoming a critical reality. After two weeks of torpor, time tautened again and became urgent.

We eventually broke free from Palermo’s pull and found ourselves speeding up the coastal motorway in the direction of the airport. Less than an hour remained before our flight departed. As a vivid sunset of orange and magenta lit up the sky over the sea to the west, my mind wandered and I assessed the potential options open to us should we miss the flight. Perhaps Francesco would put us up for a while. Money would be a problem. Would it really be a problem? Wouldn’t that be what I wanted? An adventure of some kind? It would be more desirable than the desk job that was surely awaiting me at home sooner or later, but it wasn’t sustainable. I realised that I would have to adapt or decay, and accept present realities. I found myself hoping I’d catch our flight.

We reached the boarding gate with ten minutes to spare. It hadn’t quite been the mad sprint I had envisaged an hour before, but there was some frayed nerves nonetheless. I’d like to say that I felt quiet and pensive, that I was solemnly preparing myself for the uncertainty that was waiting for me at the other end, for the challenge of finding a job, of adapting to a changing world.

But I wasn’t. What I was really dwelling on was that despite our cross-country adventures, our faithful car had made it to Bisacquino and back, and despite a collection of bumps and scratches, the real miracle was that the car hire centre had returned our deposit in full. As I boarded the plane I promised myself that next time – and I hoped that the next time would be soon – I’d at least buy a map before I arrived.

Fishing on the Øresund: A Dilemma

Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian. Or was – not because I am squeamish, or because I subscribe to some mawkish anthropomorphism, but because I thought long and hard about it. At some point in 2015, I came to the conclusion that the (significant) pleasure I derive from eating animal flesh, couldn’t be worth the death, and probable suffering, of the being in question. All animals were off limits, because, while I suspected that prawns weren’t capable of much self-reflection, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

That’s why it’s surprising, come early June, that I’m excavating the cruel barb of a fishing hook from the silver-white belly of a cod fish. The day is unholy calm, sky – blue and cloudless. The sea’s an even deeper blue, its surface like hand-blown glass, almost motionless. We’re eight of us on a roughly 30 foot boat. It’s six in the morning. One of us does this for a living, and the other seven are still drunk. Two of those seven are asleep on the narrow berths nestled into the bow, and four have their lines sunk into the still water. Another, the youngest, is leaning helplessly over the side, feeding the fish with the remnants of last night’s schnapps.


The cod twists its body only now and then, playing the part with tepid boredom. The fish is slippery with sea and it’s body is never fully in my grasp. I want to keep my fingers clear of the sharp hook embedded in the cod’s belly. It could just as easily pierce my skin. I work the barb from the flesh and a small string of guts follow. Itt’s with some relief that I throw the fish into an iced tub, now full with plump cod, snugly fit together like some slick, living puzzle.

The two colossal plastic tubs are both approaching capacity now, hundreds of kilos of cod, a little for the gulls, a few for us. Most are for the tourists and residents of Malmö, who’ll eat the fish with brown butter, boiled potatoes and freshly grated horseradish. Denmark is port side, Sweden, starboard, and this is the Øresund, the straight which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic Sea, past Hamlet’s Helsingør and under the now famous bridge of the eponymous Nordic Noir.

We hunt using radar. The captain, Torbjörn, spots the schools of fish – tiny white clusters on his display. He manoeuvres the boat over the calm water and on his say so, we drop. Long lines, weighted and ribbed with rubber squids and heavy barbs, designed to bait and catch cod. We scoot about the waters, between Denmark and Sweden, in stops and starts, sometimes driving a few seconds, and sometimes minutes. To an unknowing observer, the game would be unfathomable.

We had been drinking last night, quite a lot: fishing bowl glasses of gin and tonic and cucumber, on the summer decking in the slowly intoxicated dusk; beer out of bottles; small measures of wine in big glasses; and Swedish schnapps and songs, which I enjoyed but didn’t understand. These latter were sung at every conceivable opportunity, and with increasing gusto. Today, after stumbling from our beds at four with the couple hours’ sleep required to turn drunkenness into semi-permanent fog, we are jaded, but happy. Except for Johan, who is happy, but sheepish and vomiting.


Torbjörn jokes that he has never had anyone be so sick on such calm waters. Every time we stop over a school, someone gets a fish. Sometimes three on a line, or a huge bastard as long as your arm. That takes some effort to haul up. These moments are occasionally captured on camera, but more often with simply worded recognition – ‘Shit, that’s a big one,’ or something like that. I struggle for a few minutes with a hefty cod, and when I get him up, I’m relieved – a warm, happy, pleased-with-myself relief. Linus slaps me on the back, but I’ve got to work the hook out of its eye first. Torbjörn comes to the rescue, yanking the barb from the skull, and with breathless motion, throwing the fish into the tub.

My rationale went something like this: Empathy, the Golden Rule, is the foundation of morality. From East to West, Confucius to Isocrates, it was as common a principle as it is today. Obvious, yet difficult to live with, the rule makes evolutionary sense. It is the emotional glue by which the societal contract is preserved, and it is as near a thing as an atheist can have to an absolute source of morality. I do not kill, because I do not wish to be killed, and I recognise that this man I might want to kill is a person like me.

But it’s hard to love someone who you don’t understand. Empathy is easiest with friends and family. We are tribal beings. But we know we should make the effort. There is something noble about protecting one’s family, but there is something holy about loving strangers. At least Jesus implied as much. Vegetarianism simply extends the Golden Rule’s sphere of influence, from family, through humans, into the animal kingdom. For most vegetarians an obvious hierarchy remains, a pig’s life is not worth a person’s, but there is nonetheless a recognition that they deserve a greater place in your patterning of empathy. Even if they couldn’t offer you a place in theirs, you shouldn’t kill them simply for the pleasure of eating their flesh.


There are many more barbs to dig from the belly flesh of cod today. I wait for Torbjörn’s ‘go’, and drop the line. I feel a tug at once and begin my battle. Oscar, next to me has something too. The rod bends to the weight of a fish, and the line spins. I adjust the drag and reel in what feels like a monster. It’s not, but I can still feel the weight of what turns out to be two pretty big fish. Torbjörn rushes to help me haul the catch into the boat, but Oscar has snagged two cod on the same hook, with a third one on the line. ‘Shit look at this’, he says. He wins the unofficial competition for fish slaying recognition, but apart from Johan, who’s passed out on the berth, we’ve all done a pretty good job. In the beautiful calm, and surrounded by decent people, we’d had almost stereotypically perfect Sunday morning.

Heavy with cod as the sun comes to its full height, our boat heads back to shore. There are more people on the water, in motorboats, and bigger vessels, from across either side of the straits. We wave to some grinning rednecks, who sit drinking beer in their boat. When Torbjörn goes to work, I watch him with the dated appreciation of a landed gentry, revelling in the beauty of a tradesman’s skill. He works quickly, setting up buckets of fish, cutting and gutting hundreds of cod in one seemingly single, fluid movement. He works with the confident, (careless to a casual observer) speed of someone who has been doing this most of his life. He probably has. Gulls chase the boat, swooping for the guts thrown overboard, falling behind as the boat speeds ahead, before catching up again, blotting out the sun and cawing for their more. Torbjörn ignores them with casual grace. ‘What do you call these birds in English?’ Oscar asks. Seagulls. ‘Ah… they’re fish gull in Swedish’. The last cod is in Torbjörn’s rubber-gloved hand. Dappled copper flanks, stained seaweed brown with ocean foam white on its belly. Alien eyes, staring into god knows what. It doesn’t flinch as Torbjörn rips out its belly.

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In the space of less than an hour Torbjorn has gutted and cleaned over 200 kilos of writhing fish. He hoses the place down with a gigantic stream of seawater that sends us scuttling and laughing like little children. That night we eat the cod at Christian’s beach house. It is cooked to perfection, flakes of tender flesh dripping with butter, freshly grated horseradish and colourful baby potatoes served alongside. The next morning, our gracious host serves us brimming plates of bacon and egg. I think about refusing the offer, about explaining that I’d compromised on my morals last night only because fishing on the Øresund had seemed too precious an opportunity to pass up. I think about explaining that I hadn’t refused the plate of delicious fish the night before because I’d felt no shame in gutting the living versions of its kind. But then I imagined Christian’s crestfallen expression, his jovial, ruddy, middle-aged face struggling to understand my difficultness. The Christian who slapped me on the back when I made my big catch, and the Oscar who sang Swedish songs with me over shots of schnapps, wouldn’t be able to fathom this new, growing rift between us. The weekend had forged a Hemingwayesque bond between us, and the plight of my four-legged friend seemed remote.

And so I let the salty Danish bacon sing on my tongue, nobody noticing my moral dilemma, and the conversation turning to the fishing of the day before.


Six of Toulouse’s Best Churches

There is almost too much to see in the centre of Toulouse. Not in terms of attractions and tourist sites, but in the inevitability of stumbling across a beautiful building every second step you take. Toulouse is known for the soft pink hue of the bricks used in its medieval buildings, but it also suffers from a happy abundance of elegant wrought iron balconies, bright pastel colours, and ancient, age-eaten facades.

For the architecturally inclined, Toulouse is a treasure trove, and the city’s many ancient churches are major highlights. Here’s a quick run down of our favourites.

1)  Basilica of Saint Sernin


Just up the road from the Capitole, this impressive basilica is a UNESCO site and Toulouse’s best known church.

Saint Saturnin is an important figure in the religious history of Toulouse (Sernin is his name in the endangered but once widespread language of the region, Occitan). Saturnin was the first bishop of Toulouse, sent by Pope Fabian to Christianize the Gauls in the 250s AD. The Christianising didn’t go very well, and when the soon-to-be-martyred bishop refused to participate in a Roman sacrifice, he was tied to a bull and dragged through the streets until dead.

The saint was initially buried in either a ditch, or a ‘roman crypt’, but an enthusiastic Bishop found his burial place in the 4th Century and had a small wooden oratory erected. As devotion to the martyr grew over time, so did the church, from wooden oratory to mighty basilica.

2)  Notre Dame du Taur


The Notre Dame du Taur sits on a narrow street of the same name that runs between the Capitole and the Basilica. It was in this street that Saturnin’s bull is said to have stopped, and on this site that Bishop Hillary’s wooden church originally stood.

The current church was built in the 14th century, of the same red brick as much of Toulouse. The church tower itself dwarfs the buildings either side, but its façade is perfectly in line with those of its neighbours, giving the recently restored church exterior a striking film set feel.

3)  Saint Jerome


There are two entrances to the church. The first, as you approach from the Capitole, provides you with a more comprehensive view of the church and tower. The entrance is watched over by a statue of the Virgin with child. The other entrance is on Rue de la Pomme and is more discreet. Above the entrance are more of the same beautiful brick houses and metal balconies which populate Toulouse, and discovering the church from this angle gives you the impression that you’ve stumbled upon some ancient secret.

4) Saint-Pierre-des-Chartreux


You’ll find Saint-Pierre-des-Chartreux on your way from the Capitole to Place du Saint Pierre, where Toulouse’s many students like to while away the weekend nights. The church was built as a monastery at the beginning of the 17th Century by the Carthusian Order from the Chartreuse mountains. The nave therefore has the distinction of being divided into two parts by a lavish marble altar, one part for the Carthusians and the other for the rest of the faithful.

5)  Saint-Pierre des Cuisines


Saint-Pierre des Cuisines doesn’t actually have anything to do with kitchens, ‘Cuisines’ is in fact an anglicized version of the word ‘Coquinis’ which refers to small artisans. The church was built on top of a 4th century Galo-Roman necropolis, the archaeological remains of which you can find in the crypt. The current structure was started in the 11th Century and in the 16th century it passed into the hands of the Carthusians.

The church now serves as an auditorium and they charge 3 euro entry, but if you are in Place du Saint Pierre, the front porch and courtyard overlooking the square make for a strange and beautiful space amongst the bustle of the square in the evening light.

6)  Toulouse Cathedral

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A little further from the Capitole, towards the South-East, lies the Archbishop’s seat, the Saint-Etienne cathedral. Toulouse Cathedral actually consists of two incomplete churches, and was built between the 13th and 16th centuries, giving it a not unpleasant, but slightly disconcerting appearance.

The effect of unsymmetrically connecting two incomplete churches is noticeable from the exterior, as well as the interior, where you’ll find that the two portions are built on different axis and in different styles. The elaborate vaults and arches of the light, busy gothic nave work in nice contrast with the quieter, cavernous portion attached to the Western entrance.

Hygge Revisited: Cozy in Copenhagen

[This is a reposting of an old article, originally published in 2015. This was before we reached ‘peak-hygge’ in the UK circa late 2016. While London might be sick of hygge backed attempts to sell pumpkin-spiced latte scented candles, it’s worth bearing in mind that you can no more reach peak-hygge in Copenhagen, than you can reach peak-barbeque in North Carolina.]

It’s an old problem: is true translation possible? For a Spanish philosopher by the name of Jose Ortega y Gasset, the answer was emphatically ‘no’. A text can never do the same work that it did in the original language; it doesn’t survive translation because word to word equivalence is impossible. Ortega revelled in the freedom of this impossibility, his great cry was, ‘Translation is dead! Long live translation!’ For Ortega, translation was a ‘utopian task’, sustained by the contradictory forces of needing a text to change languages, but for the text to remain the same. Instead of translating, a poet’s job is the creative struggle to echo the effects of dying words that they themselves have lead to the slaughterhouse.

On the other hand, Ortega is clearly being dramatic. Translation isn’t impossible, else we wouldn’t have translators, or translations. The fact that the Inupiaq dialect of Alaska has seventy different words for ice doesn’t stop each word being explained in more loquacious English. In reality, it isn’t as black and white as either a simple yes or no to the possibility of translation. You can probably communicate any basic idea in any language, but subtle nuances are less likely to survive the journey. We can understand that ‘siguliaksraq’ refers to the patchwork layer of crystals that form as the sea begins to freeze, but we can probably never feel what it means to say that in one word, or what it means to a culture that needs just one word.

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The Danish word ‘hygge’ is a similar deal. It’s Denmark’s most famous untranslatable word and you’ve probably heard of it – it’s fast entering the global consciousness as a kind of conceptual poster child for Danish good living. The word’s novelty and association with Scandinavian chic are strong selling points. In LA for example, you can find the hygge bakery, and in London you can order a ‘bowl of hygge’ at the café 26 grains.

Although ‘hygge’ isn’t as ‘untranslatable’ as some would have you believe. The English word ‘cosy’ does the job fairly well. But the two words don’t have quite the same meaning. The Dutch have a pretty good equivalent, ‘gezelligheid’, and the German’s have the less good, but better than English, ‘Gemütlichkeit’. ‘Hygge’ is a combination of warmth and cosiness, a mish-mash of social vibrancy and good cheer. It reminds me a little of the Chinese word 热情(reqing) which is ‘enthusiasm’, ‘warmth’, or ‘zeal’ – a hearty welcome or the buzz of a market place. A better translation of ‘hygge’ has been attempted with ‘cosiness of the soul’, but I prefer the slightly less elegant, ‘a complete absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming’.

It can be used as a noun, as an adjective (hyggelig) and even as a verb, (I’m going to hygge here). It’s unequivocally a feeling, something of an inner experience, but it’s best translated through common, outer experiences. These are the stimuli responsible for feeling ‘hygge’, cultural signifiers that most of us share beyond language. For example, ‘hygge’ is drinking freshly brewed coffee by candlelight while it snows outside; it is sitting with friends in a pub late at night, warmed by ale and the heat of a good fire, it’s listening to the heavy-soft murmur of conversation; cuddling with a lover under blankets and watching the glow of red wine through soft light.

The stimuli vary. Each person’s idea of what is hygge varies. But what is signified by those experiences, by the word in the way each of us hears it, is a human constant. Or, for safety’s sake here, a Northern European human constant. However, the Danish have a word for it and we don’t. So, what’s different about the Danes?


I mentioned that candlelight was associated with ‘hygge’. It is no coincidence then, that according to the European Candle Association, Danes burn more candles per head than anywhere in Europe. Denmark is also regularly voted one of the happiest countries in the world, a fact often attributed to the Danes’ experience of ‘hygge’. In Copenhagen, in the depths of winter, ‘hygge’ is not a word but a philosophy; a part of daily life evident in the way the city socialises. The ‘Bastard Café’  has tasty junk food and good beer, but its quirk is a huge collection of board-games, which customers can rent out. It’s a nice place to drink a few beers, eat some nachos, spend time with friends over a silly board-game, harvesting that warm ‘hygge’ glow, which comes from knowing that you’re enjoying good company in cozy warmth while it pelts it down with snow outside. And so the blackboard by the entrance of the Bastard Café proudly advertises ‘hygge’ alongside ‘beer’.

‘Hygge’ is manifest in the very landscape of Copenhagen’s snug indoor spaces. Walk into any Danish home, cafe, or bar, and you’ll notice that the Danes pay close attention to interior design. Stark central lighting is a no-no and lamps are very important. Ideally designer, they are carefully placed to throw shadows and create pools of ‘hygge’. Even the architecture of Copenhagen’s buildings are ‘hygge’, with half-basements snuggly built into the ground, their windows facing out at street level onto the snowy legs walking past outside. Indoor spaces just seem more important to the Danes, or as one design blogger puts it, ‘Design saturates most elements of Danish life, and it’s hard to find fault with anything.’ In general, in Copenhagen’s coffee shops and watering holes, you’ll find a careful attention to space that encourages a sociable atmosphere and fosters a sense of warmth.

In Copenhagen, ‘hygge’ is ubiquitous and deliberate. Alf Bjornburg translates ‘hygge’ as ‘revelling’, with a strong component of ‘cosiness’. He writes that ‘hygge’ is a part of the ‘Danish national characteristic, both in the view of themselves, and in the view of, for example, slightly jealous Swedes who generally seem to think that the Danish are better than themselves at having a good time.’ Another hygge scholar, Meik Wiking, who’s CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, admits that hygge exists outside of Denmark, the difference he says, is that ‘in Denmark, we focus on it – it’s prioritised.’


Focus is a good way to explain linguistic difference. Inupiaqs have seventy different words for ice because ice is important to them, and Danes have ‘hygge’ because the pursuit of that cosy, cheerful, indoorsy, nostalgic feeling is important to them. The Danish extend ‘hygge’ to all manner of things. You can even get all ‘hygglig’ eating ice cream on a summer’s day, but I think the root of the word is in the cold, dark winters to which the warmth and togetherness of the indoor space becomes an antidote. For the Danes it describes a semi-conscious strategy for arranging and interacting with the indoor environment and each other within it. The word seems almost physically present in the lifestyle and spaces of Copenhagen and it’s funny how easy it is to apply the foreign word to your own experience of the city. It comes naturally to think of yourself feeling particularly ‘hygge’, or how in the cold, dark streets you wish you were wrapped up all ‘hygglig’ in bed.

I don’t know why, with our fair share of rainy days and cold winter nights, we don’t have such a strong concept of ‘hygge’ in Britain. While a country pub can certainly be cosy on a blustery winter evening, I think there’s plenty of demand for more ‘hygge’ in London.