CITIES, travel notes

Bangkok, day #3

From my travel diary – written on 14 June, 2011.

Again it happens: I am strolling through town, happy and without a worry in the world, and everywhere around me blonde tourists in states of distress, looking at maps, asking for directions. I know where I’m going, they are completely lost.

It occurs to me, finally, that it’s the strolling that makes the difference. I’m wandering, not trying to get anywhere, which is why I’m not lost. But the more I think about it, the more it seems that the two go together in a much more fundamental way – that city-as-surface is a city that requires strolling, and that city-as-lines requires purposeful travel. There is no way to wander through a city built around linear streets (Australian, British, and I imagine American cities) – you cannot take any random corners, quite simply, because immediately you’re off the main line, and into suburbia. In their dense centres to a certain point you can, but even then the excitement is mainly in linear or transversal movement (arcades, lanes) – in getting from A to B, on a large scale. On the other hand, a city which is a dense mesh of small streets, courts and squares, like Bangkok or Venice or Split, is a city where you can circle the same area for a long time before you have to repeat a stretch. In other words, wandering is not only the best way to experience such an urban fabric; it’s also the best way to get to know it. Once you’ve walked all the streets and made as many connections as possible, you know your area. You have learned it.

If I extrapolate from this, it makes sense that Americans/Australians/the British have such trouble strolling, wandering, or whenever they have to meander unpurposefully (trust me, they do). Where would they learn, if their cities guide them into another kind of movement, linear, and away from unstructured and into purposeful travel?

On another note, today I covered the last kind of public transport: motorcycle taxi. I went from Victory Monument to Rajadamnern, to see muay thai, crossing some enormous roads at acute angles, and wiggling between cars at formidable speed. Since I’m shaky even on a bike, it was a terrifying experience, and I did have a lot of time to consider my habit of not getting travel insurance. On the other hand, I generally live my life according to the rule that you can do anything, however risky, regardless of how unskilled or untrained you are, and you should be safe as long as you do it in a super-cautious way. I gripped myself onto my driver, and of course I was fine. Even jumping over potholes and having to circumvent the yellow shirts’ protest, which has been going for at least 24 hours straight.

Muay thai was extraordinary, although I saw no blood and no KOs. (I was hoping for both.) The skill, the kicks in the face, the elastic bodies of very young men. At first I thought about the possible similarities between watching this particularly violent kind of boxing and, say, gang rape, but then I realised that, for most people attending, the interest was in the betting, not in the fighting.

Today it rained furiously. The old town has very European proportions and, with steel shopfront grilles and very narrow cracked footpaths, feels even more like Lisbon.

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CITIES, travel notes

Bangkok, day #2

From my travel diary – written on June 13, 2011.

Today was the luxe day, if yesterday was the day of public transport.

Siam Square, three large malls knitted around the Skytrain, and some of the most luxurious hectares of mallness I have seen in my life. If yesterday was all about Croatia and coastalness, today is about a certain kind of capitalism.

I was going to see muay thai, but changed my mind and went to the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, because it wouldn’t have been open tomorrow. It was excellent. Thai art is meant to be very good, and the Centre was certainly fantastic. It’s decked out as a sort of arts mall, with individual small spaces given over to individual businesses or artists (galleries, art projects), which is a novel idea in my book, and a great one on top. Of course, there is a cart making coffee, right there on the fourth floor, and an art project in the shape of a cakery and ice-cream parlour. There were little children running everywhere, and a wrap-around mural. Sittichai’s exhibit for the Tourist Festival, a celebration of traditional Thai ceramics, was organised as a small garden, with pop music blaring, and pots and clay statues neatly arranged among the plants. One of the exhibits, a set of rectangular zebras, was meant to be sat on. Kids again, everywhere. What I like about this (and I like it a lot) is that fun is integral to the way art is arranged in Thailand, but in a way that’s natural, rather than designed to ‘develop audience’ – you can tell from the way it is uncoordinated, not unified in design. Pop music and zebra benches. You can tell from the way children run around all that Art and Culture. It’s an approach that Croatia won’t understand in a million years, us with our sour seriousness when confronted with things cultural. But I have left Croatia too early to be infected with this particular sourness, so I ate a green grass conceptual brownie and then wandered around malls for a whole evening.

I have put away my Dubravka Ugresic, and returned to the second book on my list, which is Said’s Orientalism: it is more relevant right now.

There is something incredibly exciting about this 3-D urbanism here: it seems to be an assemblage of the following: multi-storey shopping malls, elevated public transport, overhead pedestrian walkways (necessary to traverse gigantic roads), and a culture of stalls (by which I mean, simply, that I cannot imagine that it takes a lot of bureaucratic endeavour to put up a stall on the side of the road here). It is immensely exciting. It creates volume of public space, rather than lines thereof, but in a way that only, really, multiplies vertically what already exists at street level, which is a sort of surface of commercial activity, rather than line.

Barrie Shelton, in his book Learning from the Japanese City, suggests that the entire urbanism of Japan is radically different from the Western urbanism because of the difference in their writing systems, and that one understands composition through area, whereas the other builds it through line. I see what he means, and it indeed applies to Bangkok, too. But it troubles me because of its strong orientalism, because the forceful dichotomy seems to create huge and incorrect generalisations on both Asia and Europe.

The medieval European city certainly works as commercial surface, rather than a set of lines, as do most Mediterranean cities in all periods. I’ve found it very difficult, and counter-intuitive, to arrange my spatial orientation in lines – and I’ve encountered this problem both in Anglo-Saxon cities and in Central Europe (Zagreb, for example). Certainly, a system of rectilinear streets and regular-sized blocks is more logical, in the sense that it’s easier to transpose into another, separate system (a spreadsheet, a map), but what an area-based orientation loses in translatability, it gains in feeling. It’s much easier to feel your way through an area that is somewhat uniformly organised, than it is in an urban fabric where being two streets down from where you’re supposed to be gives you completely different urban character. I am convinced that all these places are congruent in quite a simple way, that there is no particular East-West dichotomy here. How else to explain the fact that, on my first day alone in Bangkok, I’ve been walking around at perfect ease without a map, something that I’m still unable to do in London, despite having been there 5-6 times? In London (or Melbourne, or Zagreb), the uniformity of the street stretches too far for me, and the fact that the same district, traversed two streets further north or south, will be a completely different place, just unnerves me. Bangkok is easy: the suburbs are sequences of turns, the centre traversable and composite.

This morning, the local canal flooded, and it drenched our shoes, which we left outside the door on the patio. It’s alright – Venice was the same. ‘Bang’, says Sittichai, means floodplain. Many districts of Bangkok have it in their names: our suburb, for example, Bang Na.

On the Skytrain to the city, in wet shoes, I see my first foreigners, traceable back almost to their local council. The skinny blonde woman dressed in extremely plain beige and black, who looks like she never had satisfactory sex in her life, is as clearly North-American as the blonde girl in bright pink dress with inappropriate cleavage is from the Gold Coast. Then there are men in khaki shorts and backpacks, Anglos trying to look incredibly purposeful when all they’re going to be doing for the day is stroll around town. That annoying, joyless work ethic which ruins their holidays, and is not dissimilar from the impulse to establish an outpost of the empire once you’re here, just to be seen doing something.

On the main tourist road, where I sit to watch the tourists and drink Singha, a French couple is having a furious argument; to be precise, the woman is pouring a barrage of small-sounding reprimands at her noodle-munching boyfriend; the intimacy is all of a sexual relationship. I have never travelled in company, and I see no reason to start now. The day is beautiful. It seems Bangkok attracts two kinds of tourists: single older men, and couples. They easily form larger, homogeneous groups. Harem pants and henna tattoos. I wonder what a couple could argue about on such a fine Sunday. I wonder why people travel to Thailand. There are no single white women except me visible in all of Bangkok. I wonder who drags the couples here: the man or the woman?

Today I am hugely reminded of Lisbon, and I spend the day trying to figure out whether it’s something simple, like being in a foreign place that’s warmer than home. To some extent it certainly is. (I realise I’m an aspirational tourist, always going to more expensive, more developed places, and those tend to have a cooler climate.) But there are other, small things: the malls, the reliance on taxis, the super-modern train. The infrastructure. Both places manifest an absence of mid-scale infrastructure: there is the public and XXL, and the private and XXS. Enormous roads, malls and public transport projects; tiny stalls, taxis, restaurants. In between, nothing. The airport is beautiful but dysfunctional, pure architecture, clearly built with one decision-maker only. This absence of the middle scale, which seems to have generated the 3-D vibrancy (the stalls and the malls), seems to stand for long-term centralised rule, or only a short history of participatory democracy, or a totalitarian history. There is no linear progression through scales, which would be gradual empowerment of the middle class made tangible, visible. In a sense, there is no difference in landscape effect between the top-down droppings of dams and highways in communism, and malls in capitalism.

I am enjoying myself beyond all expectations, here. I’ve found young Bangkokian designers, and hip hairdressers (who gave me an Asian haircut: same as before, but more angular and more hairsprayed). There’s a Kinokuniya and a Muji. In the luxe malls, I’ve finally found those kids who come to study in Australia, and their parents. The wealthy, wealthy ones. I keep thinking that Carl would like it here – the combination of unruliness and fine design. I certainly like the promise of exciting work and exciting play. I wonder if the young Thais are already at the point where they get passionate about and protective of their vernacular culture (stalls, tuktuks, chaos), enjoying it while already irretrievably not part of it anymore. I see that in both Croatia and Portugal, a mythologisation of the country’s own present-receding-into-past, and it seems to me like a clear sign of something dying. But meanwhile, it’s like an entire country undergoing gentrification, and all things gentrifying are magnificently vibrant.

One thing I haven’t mentioned: the money confuses me. Not so much the conversion rate, not in absolute terms, but conversion in relative terms. The differences between prices are staggering. A skewer of something from a stall might be 10 baht; a dish in a restaurant might be 200 baht. A taxi ride is about 100 baht, but a leg wax was 500. My haircut was 500, too; but an ordinary top at Muji was over 2,000 baht. My breakfast yoghurt is 16 baht. A simple bus ticket costs 24 baht. But a ferry ride was 3,5 baht only (up until that moment I didn’t even know that bahts have cents). The spread is huge. Clearly, the range between the rich and the poor here is enormous, but it doesn’t feel polarised, I cannot locate the dividing line.

And the way they smile, even the beggars, to the point where it’s hard to take their pleas for money seriously. At 7pm, a boy was sitting on the stairs to the Skytrain, with a plastic cup. It was hard to tell whether he was begging, or just having a great time.

My taxi driver today at first seemed blind: he seemed to be feeling for things before he found them. But he drove well, and I was happy to assume he had a very acute sixth sense. But then I noticed a pattern in his movements (very quick sequence of rubbing his knee, patting his belly or scratching his crotch, tapping the gear stick, then gently banging on the taximeter twice), and I assumed instead a magic ritual, sn incantation. The only form of transport I am yet to try is motorcycle taxi. Sittichai said it’s not so safe. ‘And besides, it would look inappropriate. Your skirt is too short.’ Two limitations on me due to unwomanliness and decorum. Bless him.

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CITIES, travel notes

Bangkok, day #1

From my travel diary, 12 June 2011.

It is on days like today that I return to the long-standing question of whether I’m royally fucking myself over by living in Australia.

The very edge of Bangkok, so far from the centre it is almost in another province; the edge of the centre of Melbourne, the near-edge, 15-minute walk to the central train station. That edge of Bangkok at 6am is more lively than that near-centre of Melbourne at noon. But, not to be all negative all the time: the near-centre of Melbourne noon is more lively than the edge of Bangkok at midnight. By a small margin.

The taxis are bright pink, orange, blue, green and multicolour, 7-Elevens come by the thousands, and the city has 12 million souls, but can still be traversed, edge to edge, on wonky public transport, changing three times, in under an hour. Balconies everywhere (I love balconies). The city functions as trees of streets rather than districts – you find your big street, the smaller street that branches off, the tiny street that branches off, the house. Big streets are all infrastructure, elevated, wide, with pedestrian walkways, but there is no way to kill this city by quartering.

I have been on seven modes of moveable transport today, and notable infrastructure included pedestrian bridges, multi-storeys shopping malls connecting parts of the city at multiple levels, and covered market streets. The modes of transport: taxi, rickety bus, small shuttle bus, ‘local bus’ (which is a derelict rickety bus), provincial bus (which is a mini-truck with two benches in the back), ferry, and tuk tuk (which is a vespa for four with an awning). One of the buses, I forget which, had fans attached to the ceiling for air-conditioning. They all had doors open to maximise breeze, except the truck-bus, which was all open and people would run and jump on.

I sit here, in this big beautiful city, a city which is all shonky, all makeshift, but is essentially a good, functioning city – the way most of Melbourne is not a good, functioning city – and I feel at ease and I feel at home. Walking down these suburban alleys at midnight, dodging scooters, boys painting walls, girls frying meat, kids playing, I am relaxed, and calmly happy, and this sense of ease is as unpremeditated and spontaneous as the way in which, standing in outer suburban Melbourne, I automatically feel distressed and unhappy. This feels familiar and known.

Thailand is like some sort of Croatia for South-East Asia: tourism, water, cracked sidewalks, people who smile. Everything comes in a way I would expect it to come to me on the Croatian coast, only in unintelligible script. Parent coo and mock their children; babies too small to have friends (because independence comes with friends) roam around trying to break stuff and kill themselves; older children play outrageously late and outrageously loudly; women in their thirties wear denim shorts; chairs in good restaurants are made of plastic; we walk through traffic. In the evening, women are sitting on the floor outside their houses chatting. Backyards are at the front, and paved over. Plastic buckets everywhere. Faint smell of stale water wherever you go, like in Venice. And the best restaurant outside town is in the same kind of rotting modernist seaside building as they would be in Croatia; and the personnel consists mostly of teenagers, as it would in Croatia; and the teenagers hang around while they’re finishing work, in big groups, girls rolling eyes at boys in a loving manner. It’s all so stupidly close to my last summer of high school, spent doing work experience in a crummy coastal hotel with a bunch of kids and barely any supervision, leading to the same combination of underpayment, dilligence, and flirting, that the kids were displaying tonight.

I have the same vortex of immediate recognition when I see images of Israel (again: only in unintelligible script), like a thin thread of Mediterraneanness, or at least coastalness (Sydney does the same, if not too inland), that makes us all mutually intelligible to each other, and I know with the blind conviction of someone not-entirely-sane that I could live here, and I could be happy here. Even without speaking the language. When these people heartily laugh at me for being a foreigner and not understanding their language, when they sing songs with their four-year-old daughters in restaurants, when I see a pink-collared teenager running hands through her mall co-worker’s hair while she is serving a customer without any sense of impropriety, or when I walk through the end of the night at the big hall of the seaside restaurant, and the band performs on a synthesiser, the girl sings slightly off-key, and on the dance floor there is only a young woman with an elderly man (but everyone applauds at the end) – I understand these people. They make sense to me.

And then I start wondering again about whether I’m just undermining my own happiness by staying in Australia, for no reason good enough, nothing but habit and indecisiveness. In a real, genuine way, in which I am asking this question all the time. My being in Australia often amounts to a kind of waiting for it to become really enjoyable. Keeping tabs (like someone else I knows does, of dinners served versus dinners received). Cutting my expectations down always slightly more finely. Having to discard yet another boyfriend because, when I thought I had found someone with a sense of Mediterranean easy-going joie-de-vivre, I had actually gotten myself an irresponsible lunatic (who usually takes himself way too seriously). That kind of stop-start. Stop-start.

It is only a little past 10pm here, and I will now change into my own short denim shorts, and go for a stroll around the neighbourhood, to find a snack, sit on the footpath, and make friends with someone who doesn’t speak English.

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CITIES, travel notes

The delicately delineated ecology of the Queen Victoria Market

Ah, the great institution that is the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne’s central and biggest marketplace! The unsung landmark of this town, the bastion of wog values, the shrine to everything we stand for. How unappreciated for the microcosm of Victorian society that you are! How underanalysed, and critically unassessed you remain!

We are now going to make a dent in this tragic cultural omission, by looking at the human fauna of this delicate ecosystem – listing them in order, from the rarest and most in need of conservation, via the common and the abundant, to the most weedily persistent.

The Tourist

Self-explanatory. Tourist may be an American or Swedish backpacker, a high-minded photographer documenting the life among the ethnics, a flurry of pastel-wearing Queensladers, or timid Melburnians from the outer suburbs, tasting the rough inner city – it is not their outfit or their hometown that defines them as a tourist, but, in the eyes of the other QV Market goers, their tendency to walk slowly, turn awkwardly and unexpectedly, block important circulation routes with their backpacks and fanny packs and parasols and whatnots, take photographs of bread or toilets, and generally make themselves an odious human obstacle on purpose. Tourists tend to keep in uncircumventable packs, and are often overheard making comments of highly embarrassing kind to everyone except them. (E.g., a snippet of dialogue un-self-consciously performed by a group of American backpackers in front of the Iranian nut-and-sweets stall circa May 2011: “‘Turkish Delight’?! What’s that?!” “You don’t wanna know!”)

The Wandering Hipster

Nobody knows what these creatures are attempting to get out of the experience. While The Tourist is deeply inhaling the atmosphere of anxiety-free food consumption and vibrancy such as only people of colour possess, The Wandering Hipster resembles one of those children dragged to very exclusive cocktail parties by their Gen-X parents, and withdrawn to a corner to sulk in a significant fashion. They often sit in inopportune locations attempting to merely hang out in a casual manner, as if the market were a highly desirable social setting, out of which they cannot escape, such is the strength of the finger they hold on the pulse of town. The do not buy anything, possibly because fresh food is exotic and intimidating. Once they overcome such fears, they graduate to become The Confident Hipster.
Continue reading “The delicately delineated ecology of the Queen Victoria Market” »

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CITIES, poetics of life, theatre, travel notes

The Museum of Broken Relationships

I remember when this opened, some years ago, under the name ‘Museum of Failed Relationships’. I liked that name better – it echoed of wars, revolutions, fallen heroes and honour in defeat. Broken… eh… anything can break. I visited it in June 2011. I was at the end of a relationship, that moment when all sadness gets a bit grimy already, and I was in the right mood to read about the ‘ex-axe’, and similar exhibits. In anyway, it was one of the most enjoyable museum visits I’ve ever had in my life, and I recommend it to anyone.

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CITIES, theatre, travel notes

The art of wrapping

I bought many things on my recent trip to Japan. It was hard not to: just about everything on sale in Japan was eminently worth buying. Food, drinks, books, shoes, humble boxes, ceramics, paper goods, whatever I set my eyes on was simply beautifully crafted, with precision and care. Even more, it was all displayed with such respect for the object that it made everything seem meaningful, valuable, important.

Even more importantly, every item purchased was so lovingly wrapped for me by the shop assistants that many of the things I bought I didn’t have the heart to unwrap. I felt, in a way that might be quintessentially un-Japanese, that I might ruin some crucial quality of my buy by getting it out of its paper packaging.

So take a look at this humble little thing, a papier-mache box, I bought in a shop in Asakusa, and religiously carried around for a month after in its original packaging. Watch as it comes apart, the thing of beauty (見事) that it is.

The box itself is gorgeous; after all, that was what I saw on the shelf in Asakusa. However, the multiple layers of packaging added an entirely new level (or layer) of beauty to it. The habit of wrapping a square item in a square sheet of paper by rotating it slightly was common to my experience of Japan: many very humble items came to me wrapped like that, in very humble shops and from people who clearly weren’t any sort of paper artists. The folds in such a wrapping process result in many very small, unusual corners. It was only once I had unwrapped it, and examined the paper, that it became obvious that, despite the seeming haphazardness of the angle, and the irregularity of the little folds created along the way, there was great thought involved in the technique. It was only once the wrapping paper was laid out that the symmetry of the folds was revealed:

After returning from Japan, I spent at least a month gripped by what my boyfriend called a case of post-Japan blues afflicting all Australians. Nothing, to put it simply, was good enough anymore. What would have seemed like ordinary customer service until my departure for Tokyo suddenly looked like gratuitous acts of random and deliberate rudeness. I was appalled by shop assistants across multiple states shrugging and declaring that they weren’t really good at wrapping, instead handing me some brown paper and letting me do the job myself, if I was so keen on having my bought goods packaged. In a bookshop in Brisbane’s South Bank, adjacent to GOMA, a bookshop that purported to be a classy joint, I had to quite warmly insist to the shop assistant that his wrapping skills would certainly be adequate before he deigned to wrap the pile of books I had just bought with the intention to give as presents. And not to say anything about the quality of the purchased goods. After Japan, quite simply, nothing was good enough anymore.

Japan is certainly heaven for anyone with a love for applied arts – Japanese arts are all applied, and Japanese culture values application enormously. But being there reminded me strongly of the little pleasures of living in Europe – travelling a few kilometres whichever way and experiencing a thousand microfelicities upon finding something new, beautiful and native to the local area to savour, touch, perhaps bring back as a little present (omiyage, お土産). And I remembered my visit to Perth, my first travel in Australia outside of Melbourne, walking through shop after shop, all of which could have been called Cheap&Nasty (dot-painted boomerangs, koala keychains, postcards of men holding pints of beer), and wondering how it was possible that so many people had spent so much time settled on that corner of the Earth without producing, appreciating and refining a single thing, a single item special to them. A single thing worth making with care, displaying with respect, wrapping with love and selling proudly to a visitor.

One could make the age argument (Australia is so young!, has not had the time to produce papier-mache boxes worth raving about!), but it is an insincere argument. What makes the Asakusa box special is not the thirteen hundred years of Japanese civilization. It is the care with which it was made, the care with which it was displayed, the care with which it was wrapped upon purchase, the care which naturally extended to my own greater appreciation. Such care comes with respect for the craft, and appreciation of beauty that is a degree separate from the utility, cost or status value of the object. It is materialism in the proper sense of the word.

It is care that Australia lacks, not history. After all, most of what human beings do, as a species, is rather banal: growing and eating food, building shelter, hitting balls of varying shapes according to varying rules; some paved roads here; some drying racks there. Civilization and culture are not so much the sum total of our operas, marble horsemen and bell towers, but of our ability to imbue with meaning and purpose these everyday activities that we have shaped our life around. What makes Italy a deeply satisfying place to live in is not the ruins of the Colosseum, but the way Italians talk about food and football: not as guilty pleasures, but as activities of cosmic importance. (As of Japan; look no further…)

To be able to tell why something that you do matters, it is not enough to bullshit (marketing thrives in Australia as well as in Italy), because a narrative of that sort is not a lie. It is definitional, and generative. It is born by giving a voice to one’s own innate sense of what is important, and it makes others care for it more. It forms, by default, a community. But it requires an opening up, and it makes one vulnerable. Especially if the context is that of a place in which it is considered somehow embarrassing to care.

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CITIES, travel notes

On girls and bikes

Picture this: Turkish island of Heybeliada. Beautiful name, big blue sky, people sitting in cafes by the sea. An older woman, in her fifties, dressed entirely in turquoise, is helping a girl that could be ten years of age to get on a much bigger bike. They succeed; the girl rides off, the woman sits down with two women in a cafe, both younger (early thirties). The turquoise woman has a headscarf, but is otherwise in plain clothes. The young women are dressed non-religiously, as is the girl, who comes back, gets off the bike, and joins them at the table.

Continue reading “On girls and bikes” »

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‘Kvart’ is a Croatian word that only really lives in Zagreb. ‘Kvart’ means ‘quarter’, 1/4 – as in quartiere, quartier, viertel; in other words, district, neighbourhood, part of town. Continue reading “Ville Radieuse; Croatia.” »

CITIES, travel notes

Ville Radieuse; Croatia.

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CITIES, how the world works, spatial poetics, travel notes

A note on violence

13 June

As I’m writing this, the first gay pride parade in Split (second biggest city in Croatia, biggest coastal, smack-bang in the middle of the area that was heavily bombed during the war, therefore, somewhat predictably, somewhat right-leaning) resulted in a violent riot, as the parade (of 200 mainly non-gay people – activists, intellectuals, supporters) was met by a rock-hurling counter-protest (of about 10,000 by the police estimate). Croatian media are exploding with commentary, all condemning the violence in the harshest possible terms. This is great improvement since the LGBT issue was first raised, only about 12 years ago, when no one spoke about it, and the general opinion was not far from an assumption that there are no homosexuals in Croatia. But, in a very strongly masculine culture, homosexuality is, of course, destabilising for a whole series of cultural paradigms. As one journalist wrote: Continue reading “A note on violence” »

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