I’m fresh off a flight from Miami this morning – although “fresh” really isn’t the right word (at all).

Having spent a week in Washington DC then south Florida (and thoroughly enjoyed both), I wanted to share this article that appeared in the New York Times (published December 2009) by British writer Geoff Dyer.

(As someone who’s new to blogging, I’m not quite sure what the legalities & niceties are of reproducing this, but I’m acknowledging where I got it from – hope that’s OK.)

Anyway, I have lots of American friends in London, and am often quite embarrassed at the snide, chippy way we Brits treat them, compared to the usually-lavish treatment we get when we’re in the USA. I just think this is a great piece of writing. See if you agree with Geoff:

“THE first thing I ever heard about Americans was that they all carried guns. Then, when I came across people who’d had direct contact with this ferocious-sounding tribe, I learned that they were actually rather friendly. At university, friends who had traveled in the United States came back with more detailed stories, not just of the friendliness of Americans but also of their hospitality (which, in our quaint English way, was translated into something close to gullibility). When I finally got to America myself, I found that not only were the natives friendly and hospitable, they were also incredibly polite. No one tells you this about Americans, but once you notice it, it becomes one of their defining characteristics, especially when they’re abroad.

This is very strange, or at least it says something strange about the way that perception routinely conforms to the preconceptions it would appear to contradict. The archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered. We look on with some confusion at these encounters because, on the one hand, the Americans seem a bit country-bumpkinish, and, on the other, good manners are a form of sophistication.

Granted, these visiting Americans often seem to have loud voices, but on closer examination, it’s a little subtler than that. Americans have no fear of being overheard. Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone. So we mutter and mumble as if surrounded by informers or, more exactly, as if they are living in our heads. In America the right to free speech is exercised freely and cordially. The basic assumption is that nothing you say will offend anyone else because, deep down, everyone is agreed on the premise that America is better than anyplace else. No such belief animates British life. On the contrary. A couple of years ago a survey indicated that British Muslims were the most fed-up of any in Europe: a sign, paradoxically, of profound assimilation.

If the typical American interaction involves an ostensibly contradictory mixture of the formal (politeness), the casual and the cordial, what happens when one moves beyond the transactional? Like many Europeans, I always feel good about myself in America; I feel appreciated, liked. It took a while to realize that this had nothing to do with me. It was about the people who made me feel this way: it was about charm. Yes, this is the bright secret of life in the United States: Americans are not just friendly and polite — they are also charming. And the most charming thing of all is that it rarely looks like charm. The French put a rather charmless emphasis on charm, are consciously or unconsciously persuaded that it is either part of a display of sophistication or — and it may amount to the same thing — a tool in the service of seduction.

You can see all of this in operation on flights back across the Atlantic from America to Euroland. At first we are under the spell of America. Instead of plunking ourselves down next to someone without a word, we say “Hi.” Maybe even indulge in a little conversation, though this American readiness to chat is counterbalanced by the fear that once we’ve got into a conversation we might not be able to extricate ourselves from it. By the time we’re mid-ocean, a kind of preparatory freeze has set in. As the flight stacks up in the inevitable holding pattern over Heathrow, we begin to revert to our muttering and moaning national selves. But, for a week or so after landing, a form of what might be called Ameristalgia makes us conscious of a rudeness in British life — a coarsening in the texture of daily life — that had hitherto seemed quite normal.

For example. I pay a considerable sum of money to play indoors at Islington Tennis Centre. Eighty percent of the time, the next people to play indicate that your time is up by unzipping their racket covers and strolling on court, without saying a word, without a smile, without acknowledging your existence except as an impediment. In America that would be not just unacceptable but inconceivable.

What is the relevance of this anecdotal trivia to a serious debate about the status of America in the world?

Most of my American friends were depressed and gloomy about the Bush years. Several said that if Bush were re-elected in 2004, they would leave the country. He was and they didn’t. The bottom line is that given the choice, Americans love it rather than leave it. Day to day, American life remained as pleasant as could be expected, even in the midst of considerable economic hardship. There was even a bonding, anti-Bush feeling similar to the kind of consensual opposition that we experienced under Margaret Thatcher. A visiting American artist like Patti Smith found that while the usual torrent of name-­dropping — Rimbaud, Mapplethorpe, Kerouac et al. — got a smattering of appreciative applause, a single gibe about Bush brought the house down.

At the same time, either sterling went up or the dollar went down (I don’t really understand this stuff), and as a consequence, Americans felt poor when they visited our rainy little island. So, for a brief period, we felt richer — planeloads of us went to Mannahatta and bought up everything in sight — and ideologically and ethically superior. Man, that felt good. We had a less blinkered attitude to Israel, didn’t drive big gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s, and if we were chilly of an evening we put on a sweater rather than turning up the heating (or, more accurately, turning off the A.C.). Sure, Blair went along with invading Iraq, but wasn’t that partly because he hoped to restrain the crusading fundamentalism of Bush? Now the dollar is back up — or down, or whichever it is — Europe is no longer expensive, and with the election of Barack Obama, the brief cushion of political superiority has been permanently deflated.

The Obama election was a real kick in the teeth, because although we Britons still seethe with class hatred, we pride ourselves on our highly evolved attitude to the question of race that has consistently undermined the American dream. The slight problem is that racial intermingling in Britain is most conspicuous in the ethnically diverse makeup of the groups of yobs — Asian, black and white — who exercise their antisocial behavioral skills without any kind of discrimination as to whom they happen to be terrorizing. In this regard, as in so many others, we seem to be leading from the bottom up.

Across the board, the grounds for all our feelings of superiority have been steadily whittled away. It turns out that the qualities that make us indubitably British — that is, the ones that we don’t share with or have not imported from America — are no longer conducive to Greatness. They actually add up to a kind of ostrich stoicism that, though it can be traced back to our finest hour (the blitz, the Battle of Britain), manifests itself in a peculiar compromise: a highly stylized willingness to muddle on, to put up with poor quality and high prices (restaurants, trains), to proffer (and accept) apologies not as a prelude to but as a substitute for improvement. We may not enjoy the way things are, but we endure them in a way that seems either quaint or quasi-Soviet to American visitors.

A tiny example. There’s a fashionable gastro pub near where I live. You scrum at the bar, desperate to get the attention of the barman. After a while, he will raise his eyebrows and glare at you. Unschooled in our rough ways, a visitor from America might assume he is being threatened, but actually the glare means that your order can now be taken — as long as you’re quick about it. When a friend from California had managed to order, he was handed the credit card terminal, which showed the amount and the option to add something for service. Americans are predisposed to tip, but my friend was slightly taken aback because, far from being in receipt of anything that might be described as service, it felt as if he had been fighting for a place aboard the last lifeboat on the Titanic. “Welcome to England,” I said.” END

 

 

Travel eh – it’s a funny old world. You meet a Peruvian based in South Africa who’s name is literally German.

Senor de le Melena – who yes ladies is a model – owns Keenwa, the Mother City’s first and only Peruvian restaurant.

Here are his top Cape Town tips,  but first make sure you head to Keenwa, which is at 50 Waterkant Street, for the finest ceviche east of  Lima.

German de la Melena

Where should I be eating right now?

Dinner at Mano’s for its great simple menu, very home style and delicious every time, great ambiance and service. Also La Boheme which is a great concept, great value for money and fun always. Keenwa, of course, only Peruvian restaurant in town! Sorry, only Peruvian restaurant in the country, so it’s a must of you want to try something very different. Breakfast obviously Sand Bar in Camps Bay, it’s a must. Always welcoming and the scenery is awesome. The Old Biscuit Mill is a fun option for a crazy Saturday morning. Wakame makes a great place for a drink and a meal after the sunsets.

Where should I be drinking right now?

Tjing Tjing in town is the place to be, also &union lots of fun, on Wednesdays especially.Bungalow at sunset time in Clifton.

Where should I be shopping right now?

At the top of Long Street and start of Kloof Street for funky one-off clothes boutiques.

Describe your perfect Cape Town summer weekend?

Saturday day trip to the Crystal Pools with a picnic, not too much food because the baboons might create a problem there, then lay back and relax in Kogel Bay beach further up the road and finish it with a night over in Betty’s Bay or Hermanus, if not back to Cape Town and go for a great meal – suggestions above. Best spot for sunset is our secret rock at the end of Oceanview Drive, we call it the Sunset Rock! Beautiful, great for sundowners.

Sunday lunch at Eden on the Bay in Bloubergrstrand is awesome or a weekend away in the wine lands especially Robertson or Franschhoek.

Anywhere local you like to escape to?

Guess I said that one before! Misty Cliffs by far the best though.

What’s your guilty Cape Town pleasure?

A chocco rico form Mano’s, or somosas from Moyo (or any somosa really!)

What’s your number one tip for anyone coming to Cape Town?

Climb Lion’s Head and Table Mountain.  If have to chose one do Table Mountain. Go to Cape Point, around the whole peninsula and do Crystal Pools.  Cape Town is Amazing!

Gracias German, en baie dankie!

If you’re around Brick Lane or Whitechappel in east London and see some flowers poking out of the road or pavement, it’s not Mother Nature who’s put them there – it’s my mate Steve Wheen.

They are part art project, part campaign to highlight awareness of the capital’s pot holes –  and the risk they pose to cyclists.

Here are a couple of examples of Steve’s handywork. The London empire is expanding soon to Milan and elsewhere so watch this space.

 

We all judge people.

My Mum, for example, doesn’t like men with beards or people whose eyes are too close together, so Bjorn Borg never stood a chance in our household in the 70s.

Similarly, men who buy the Daily Mail are a bit odd (what, with it being a paper for women), those who have narrow ankles, and people who think it’s strange to read on the loo and/or like pugs.

The list goes on.

Personally, I’ve always been very sniffy about people who don’t like Hong Kong because I absolutely love it.

“Ooh but it’s so busy and dirty” they sniff with their pursed lips as I try and smile while making a mental note to cross them off the Christmas card list.

I adore Hong Kong’s vibrancy and energy, and a trip their last week just reminded me about its general wonderfulness – especially when it comes to food.

Where else can you have a Michelin-starred meal* in a metro station and pay the equivalent of £1 a dish – ladies and gentlemen I give you Tim Ho Wan on level 1 of Central MTR station. (* = Its sister branch was awarded 1 star in 2009).

It’s one of three branches in the former British colony, all of which get extremely busy, so to beat the crowds head there for 9am when it opens for a breakfast of dim sum.

It’s a tad tricky to find because there’s no sign in English so look for this green sign, below, on the front, directly opposite a shop called Frey & Ford. (And the pictures of dumplings are a clue too).

Once there ask for the English menu, tick off what you want and hand to the unsmiling waitress, and your dim sum (or yum cha) will arrive quickly. Tea, for you to help yourself, will already be on the table.

The menu’s not huge, but it’s so good. Steamed fresh shrimp dumplings will set you back HKD$22 (£1.85) while steamed rice with chicken comes wrapped in a banana leaf for $25 (£2.10). Bring a pack of tissues if you like to have napkins.

Best of all though are the fried baked buns with BBQ pork (above) ($18/£1.50) – what could ever be better than a sweet, sugared, fried bun, combined with barbecued pork inside? Answer – nothing!

Oh and if there is a massive line to sit down, it does takeaway too.

Enjoy

Having recently blogged about Syria, I thought I’d dig out some of my photos of my trip to Iran in 2008.

I know it’s a terrible travel cliche to talk about “the friendly locals” but, as anyone who’s been there will tell you, the Iranian people – we’re not including the paranoid bunch who run the place or their goons in the police or army who prop them up – are incredibly hospitable towards foreigners in a way you really don’t find in many other places, and certainly in a way that’s never reported on the news.

It’s partly, I think, tradition, partly the fact they don’t get many tourists and partly that they are acutely aware of what “the West” thinks about them so go out of their way to show it’s not true.

Here’s my article from the Times that ran in 2009 with a few photos.

If ever you want to go Magic Carpet Travel, based in Ascot, will get you there and assist with visas. And it is worth going, largely as it’s such a joy to meet ordinary Iranians who just want to get on with their lives as much as we do, and partly to realise there’s a lot more to a place than what you see on the news.

Tehran

The metal door to the synagogue swung open and a small boy skipped across the courtyard. He looked puzzled at the three people who stood before him, two of whom were clearly not Iranian. He led us up some steps to the temple, where I slipped a skullcap on to my head. A lady came towards us, smiling. “Are you Jewish?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. “Sorry.”

My friend Annette and I went inside anyway, past a table of food laid out for Passover, and sat at the back as an elderly man read from the Torah in front of eight others.

I’d never have guessed that my first time inside a synagogue would be in Tehran, but Iran is full of surprises. It has a fundamentalist leadership that many in the West believe to be as nutty as a box of pistachios. But it also has a population of 65 million, most born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (which culminated in the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini 30 years ago this month), and far removed from the dour and menacing stereotype often portrayed on the 10 o’clock news. The ordinary Iranian people are by far the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve met in more than 20 years of travelling.

Mr Sassan, centre-middle, in natty white jacket and shades. The others were from elsewhere in Central Asia, not Iran.

Some friendly students we met while touring a mosque. As you can see one half of society has an easier dress code in the heat than the other.

Our ten-day trip took us from traffic-snarled Tehran 600km (370 miles) south across the Zagros Mountains to Shiraz and the magnificent ruins at Persepolis, started by Darius I in 515BC and destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330BC. (I have never been to a historical site where the past felt so approachable.)

Then we headed back north to the capital via Esfahan and the holy city of Qom, passing near the controversial nuclear facility at Natanz, which looked more like a car assembly plant. I assume, though, that most car factories aren’t protected by banks of anti-aircraft guns.

Our guide for the journey was the ever-smiling Mr Sassan, a font of knowledge and always ready with a new story. At the start of the trip I believed all he told me, but as the week got longer his tales got decidedly taller.


We learnt that it paid to sit down when he started to talk, for with Mr Sassan there was no such thing as a quick skip through 3,000 years of history and the conspiratorial goings-on as empires rose and fell, invaders came and went.

“Now this is a sad one,” he’d say before recounting a tale of humble beginnings, love, jealousy, power, betrayal, exile and death. And when we seemed incredulous he’d look slightly hurt. “No, it’s true, I’m telling you,” he’d reply. He was also adept at scooping handfuls of nuts and fruit for us from displays in open-fronted shops, walking away waving his cane shouting “Free samples, they don’t mind,” as we scurried off. He was also a Mr Fixit.

Persepolis

In Shiraz, after guiding us to the tombs of the classical poets Sa’di and Hafez – as Shakespeare is to us, so are these to Iranians – he tracked down the best local faludeh, a wonderful frozen dessert flavoured with rose water.

The Mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh has supposedly been closed to non-Muslims for the past three years, since a mullah objected to the revealing outfits of some Spaniards, so we headed through a winding, covered bazaar to its back entrance for a peek through the gates.

Yet, rather than shooing us away, a young caretaker welcomed us inside on the proviso that Annette put on a chador (an enormous cloth that covered her from top to toe) and that we didn’t go inside the main shrine.

The large courtyard was busy with worshippers paying their respects to the remains of Sayyed Mir Ahmad, who died in the city in AD835. The caretaker asked where we were from. Inglistan? “Ah, welcome to Iran,” he beamed. Could he, though, ask us a few questions? What is the difference between England and Britain, he wondered, and whereabouts was Charles Dickens buried?

Another gracious encounter was with Mr Abbas and his wife in the dusty, backwater village of Imamzadeh Bazm.

We had planned to camp for two nights with Qashqai nomads, but a drought had delayed their 500km migration from the Gulf. Instead of 1,700 families on the grassy plain, we found just one; the women making crisp, thin bread over a stove, the men smoking opium in a tent next door and then coming back to fiddle, glassy-eyed, with a gun that they use to scare away wolves.

Back in the village, Mr Abbas’s B&B was basic but clean and comfortable, and his wife’s cooking was the hit of the holiday: aubergines mixed with yoghurt and mint; mushroom and barley soup; pickles; lettuce dipped in vinegar; and, for breakfast, tea and fruit followed by cheese with chopped walnuts.

Girls and boys aren't supposed to mix. These lads were not so subtly flirting with the girls going past in the park, though.

Students on a day out - we had to force them to smile; moody and mysterious is generally the way to pose in Iranian pictures. Annette shows how it's done.

But, above all, it was the people we met who made this trip for us. Groups of teenage lads – many in trendy T-shirts and elaborately gelled (and, in theory, illegal) hairstyles – always offered us big smiles and a “Salaam” (Hello). After establishing our nationality, there would be an invitation to pose for a photo with someone’s mobile phone. Annette and I would beam away while everyone else adopted an authoritative stare into the lens.

“How-are-you-I’m-fine?” was the standard opener from laughing students. What did we think of Iranians, they all asked. Did we think Iran was dirty? What about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? Was it right that Iran shouldn’t be allowed nuclear power? (No mention of nuclear weapons.)

And what about America? “They think we’re all terrorists,” said a laughing, leather-skinned loo-brush seller from his kiosk outside Tehran’s main bazaar. He waved several of his products towards us: “Look! Weapons of mass destruction!”

Juice seller in Tehran

Their simple acts of hospitality were a continual delight – women offering tea as they tended a relative’s grave by a mosque, a man inviting us for dinner after we asked to photograph him on a bridge, several people giving us their phone numbers in case we ever needed translation help.

The women didn’t shy away from us. Far from it. Yes, they wore drab, shapeless overcoats and headscarves, the latter often pushed back to show plenty of hair.

And tourists must cover up too, although Italian tour groups we encountered had their own fashionista definition of what was acceptable. Annette found wearing a headscarf in 35C heat thoroughly annoying and couldn’t wait to remove it the moment she stepped on the London-bound plane.

Think it'll be a while before Starbucks opens in Tehran. And anyway, Iranians would generally prefer a cup of tea.

Our experience in the Tehran synagogue came on our last day in the country. Annette and I said goodbye to the tiny congregation, then returned outside to Simi Alley and bought sweet lemons from a fruit shop. We went to the swankier north of the city for pizza and carrot juice, then explored the Shah’s former palaces alongside dozens of picnicking families.

“Stop and have some tea with us,” we were asked more than once. “Please take some almonds. Tell people in Britain how we really are.” I promised I would.  (COPYRIGHT WILL HIDE, 2008).

David Beckham gets everywhere