Notes from a Lay Bye: Road travel in India

The hardest of hard shoulders - the road between Rishikesh and Delhi

Yup – that’s how they spell it. “Lay Bye”.  Local interpretations of the Indian Highway Code are a source of much-needed mirth at moments of stress. When you’re on any one of the subcontinent’s zillion roads, this means pretty much all the time.

Unfortunately, my auto-rickshaw was careering too fast along the wrong side of the road for me to snap the “Elephants have Right of Way” sign on the bridge outside Rishikesh , and it wasn’t until I was almost upon it that I registered the utterly random single word THANKS (displayed in English and in Hindi) in eight-inch reflective lettering en route to Delhi International Airport. A prompt, perhaps, for passing travellers to meditate on the virtue of gratitude.

Indeed, Indian roads provide a unique opportunity for the most powerful meditations; the certainty of death and uncertainty of the time of death being the most obvious.  If you travel far enough – say a few hundred miles – you’re certain to see a fatality – either in medeas res or in the form of a cadaver abandoned by a roadside or maybe in the midst of fast-moving traffic, with trucks, cars, rickshaws, pedestrians and elephants hurtling and hrrrumphing past.  If there’s anything left of your heart after a few weeks of being driven around India, you can be sure to find it in your mouth. So, whenever possible, take the train.

Fountains, frozen, the Louvre Paris

I.M Pei's fountain, Musée du Louvre, Paris, frozen at 1/200s

And not a drop to drink…

This edit was inspired by an extremely severe bout of winter flu during which I lay parched and feverish with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, yet strangely nauseated by the taste of water. Hydrophobic, like a rabid dog.

Although no dog has ever explained to a human exactly how our world appears to its own race, it is believed that their ability to capture motion is considerably better than ours, with excellent night vision though poorer colour sensitivity. This means that TV and film, for example, are perceived as a series of rapidly-moving stills, and the effervescent, monochromatic columns of water shown in this image are visible to them without digital technology and post processing.

You can approximate this effect for yourself by wearing coloured glasses on a moonlit night, waiting five minutes for your vision to adjust, and blinking furiously while focusing intently on a fast-moving body of water. Things will happen. Passers-by may shy away, thinking you are mad. You may meet someone interesting; a policeman, perhaps.  A hobo, lover, or stray dog.

Give it a go, some lonely night.

Pei's triangular reflecting pool replicates both the image and form form of the Pyramide and its facets

Love is…in the air

OMG - it's full of starlings: a heart-shaped murmuration above the Nice Opera

Moments before swooping to their roosts as the sun set on 2010, the last starling murmuration of 2010 formed a heart that beat twice before dispersing into the evening air.

A number of theories attempt to explain the birds’ behaviour: the ‘safety in numbers’ principle (self explanatory); or that none of them wants to be first to roost; and lastly perhaps that each wishes to roost next to a bigger and more successful companion who may lead them to their source of food the next day.

The French name for starling, “etourneau“, derives from the Latin “sturnus“.  Although it carries intimations of eternity, the word has an entirely different etymology. However, entirely credible that Rome, with its millions of starlings twittering furiously, fluttering and swarming across the skies, dropping tons of toxic shit onto its priceless ruins, may have earned the nickname ‘eternal city’ through such a misunderstanding— “La cité des etournaux” has a certain ring of truth to it.

Alors, love and magic on New Year’s Eve — may 2011 bring you both.


Santas’ Secrets: caption competition

At first glance, two jolly old Santas climbing a wall above Sorrento’s night market.  Closer reading of the image poses some interesting questions: why are they wearing those tiny (and empty?) manbags – rather than the usual over-the-shoulder sacks?  Why are they working as a pair? Are they scassinatori – burglars? Is there no end to Italian corruption?

And what could they be saying to each other?

So…the first totallygone Christmas caption competition.  Enter a comment (by January 31), and the winning entry gets a framed 8×10 from the archive or flickr collection.

Update 1/2/2011: After careful consideration, much deliberation and soul-searching, the prize goes to Nick Alexander. It was, as expected, a very close race, with all entries demonstrating the kind of wit and literacy common to my friends. However, for context and dialogue, he gets the print, and runners-up get a file, in whatever size or format, of their choice.

Full of … Grace

Grace Kelly, the Monaco Years, at the Grimaldi Forum, Montecarlo

Grace Kelly – The Monaco Years, an exhibition marking the 25th anniversary of her death, eclipsed attempts by all others to do the same, which was, of course, the point.

Her dresses were later passed to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, but Monaco’s most memorable and moving exhibits were letters that the then Princess Grace exchanged with Alfred Hitchcock.  Ironically, these mourn the passing of her Hollywood years; the ultra-conservative Grimaldi and his Monégasques would have absolutely no truck with their Princess playing a psychologically damaged femme fatale, being ravished by Sean Connery, or otherwise cavorting around L.A. as in her days of yore.

Princess Grace writes that she was “heartbroken” to give up the role of Marnie – again, an ironic choice of words for a newlywed. Hitchcock’s compassionate reply suggests a tenderness for which he’s not usually remembered.

Clearly, the princess discovered too late that she’d chosen a crown over an acting career, distracted perhaps by the enormity of her choices. Years later, her 21-year-old daughter Caroline would blurt that she couldn’t “stand to carry the burden of her [mother’s] unrealized ambition”.

And ambitious she was: Oleg Cassini, her erstwhile fiancé, claimed Kelly said she’d “rather be a princess than a countess,” maybe forgetting for a too-long moment that, perhaps, what she wanted all along, in fact, was to be what she was — an actress.

A little drop…of belle epoque

Rue de la Liberté from the Place Magenta, Nice

Although the Carré d’Or lacks the almost medieval charm of Vieux Nice, its turn of the (19th) century architecture has its own appeal.

At left, the Boulangerie Multari, a chain of bakeries selling extraordinarily delicious tartes and other farinacious delights.

Je crois…aux Anges

Sunrise, Baie des Anges, Nice
Sunrise, Bay of Angels, Nice

Shot at dawn, midwinter, as I walked along the Promenade des Anglais. I noticed the gulls’ wings stirring as they fed at the water’s edge, and was ready with the camera by the time they’d taken flight. Other than sharpness and white balancing, this image has undergone no colour adjustment .

Images such as this benefit from printing on highly reflective paper such as Kodak Metallic Endura, which offers image stability up to 100 years in a typical home display.

From Russia with Love

Interior, Chiesa Ortodossa Russa, Sanremo

The domes of La Chiesa di Cristo Salvatore, Santa Caterina Martire e San Serafino di Sarov (Church of Christ the Savior, St. Catherine the Martyr and St. Serafin de Sarov) are its most beautiful and distinctive attributes.  They featured fleetingly in the 2009 movie Io Sono L’amore (I am Love), whose heroine, Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) passes the church enroute to an unexpected – and life-changing – encounter with her son’s best friend.

Domes, Chiesa Russa Ortodossa, Sanremo
Chiesa Russa, Sanremo

The movie’s main theme, that of identity and self, finds expression in a number of key scenes.  Recchi, Russian by birth, has lost her cultural identity in a cold and sexless marriage to an Italian plutocrat: “When I moved to Milan, I learned to be Italian.”

As she walks through Sanremo, she  looks up to the roof of the Russian church, and a shaft of sunlight breaks through from behind the domes. This prefigures the coming plot point at which Recchi meets the man who will awaken yet other aspects of her self, cut her hair, and cook for her a peculiarly revolting (and deadly) fish soup.


Near Imperia, Liguria: the view across the valley from Bellissimi

Palondromic primes, like today’s date, are said to be auspicious for new beginnings and also to represent the cyclic nature of existence .

Here, in the olive groves of Imperia, Liguria, the fruit is famous for its sweetness, and is handpicked to prevent bruising, (the oil becomes bitter if the fruit is hurt).

The olive branch has, since pre-Christian times, symbolised peace and goodwill, and is featured on the Great Seal of the United States, whose eagle grasps in its talon a stem bearing 13 olives.

The Masons are mad about it.