Tag Archives: Writing

Italy, Street-Level

Pigeon on street

What travel writers fail to write about, but what every traveler to Rome quickly understands, is that the vitality of Rome is at street level, in the shops and alleys and plazas down below, not the arcing walls and commanding towers above. From the agrarian countryside of windblown trees, summerfallow fields and feeding doves, to the stone walls, tenements, and ancient shops of the city, the feeling of humanity – not the highbrow renaissance kind, but the hunkered down, feeding and slurping kind – permeates the land.

At such an early hour there were no people. I went to the dining patio, still pearly with dew and waking, and sat beside a fat, solitary pear dangling over the table. The furniture was plastic and artificial, the table cloth a gingham red; a wild, viney rose bush ran the length of the railing, sprouting and sprawling beyond a narrow planter. Two pigeons strutted on the concrete, their cooing displacing the silence.

“Si, you go there, if you like, to take breakfast.” Alberto, our front desk clerk with a wandering left eye instructed us in the hotel amenities when we arrived. “I can go early?” I asked. “Anytime. All the time.” He shrugged. “Is open always.”

The sun lifted and daylight fell down the canyon walls. A waitress appeared to prepare the tables for breakfast. At each table she placed white crockery – cups of varying sizes for coffee, milk and cereal. She set down wicker baskets of small jams and jellies and individual packages of Fette Biscottate. When Harumi tried dunking one of these in her coffee, it fell apart before it reached her mouth. The girl rolled out trolleys bearing cisterns of hot coffee, hot tea and hot milk. A final tray with a domed glass case she filled with fresh croissants, both plain and sweetened. She didn’t speak. She moved silently.

The city woke, and we went out into it. Along the streets, shutters were being rolled open and windows washed. It was Monday, so shelves got their weekly dusting and signs their makeover. Rome stopped being a pallid warehouse of coveted antiquity – as it appeared on every summer weekend – and started being a thriving city.

“Giorno,” they said. It was the sound of a swallow, or hiccup. I couldn’t tell if it was coming out or going in, but it was how these men – these grey-haired clerks, middle-aged with that Roman rotundity all men over forty seemed to develop – said hello. In the abbreviated morning greeting, they conferred casual respect and an comfortable awareness of their clientele, the way a fat uncle doesn’t get up when you enter the room, staying instead in front of the television, burping.

Customers came for the legs of ham as wide and deep as a lute, for wheels of cheese, for buckets of salamella piscante. They bought deep-fried, stuffed olives, frozen octopus and Speedy Pizza, “alla Four Margherita” inside. They came in their auntie dresses and reading glasses and bags of goods already filled at other stores, and they were served with direct and simple care. They were like family.

Outside, the square was dominated by a statue of the martyred, hooded and solemn-looking Giordeno Bruno. His execution, after a life of persecution and accusations of heresy, was a death by fire at the hands of 17th century inquisitors. The statue was his record. At its base was a fruit stand.

Stalls mobbed the square and turned Campo de Fiori into a lively morning market. Stalls overflowed with cherry tomatoes, string beans both verdant green and psychedelic pink, unpolished apples, zucchini, peppers curled and folded into themselves like soft plastercine. At the lettuce stall, a dizzyingly diverse range of boxes were individually labeled: scaroia, cicoric, spinaci, caitaga, finocchi, ruigheita, rugola, taglio, apolloti and toglia di quereira.

“Do you speak English?” A small, blond woman in her late-thirties approached me at the fruit stand. Another woman in front of me had just bought a monstrous cluster of green grapes. I was considering the single small vine remaining. I could wash them at the tap and gobble them up in one sitting. Before Harumi was finished with her picture taking.


“Yes,” I said. I lay the small cluster back in the box and waited for the clerk to look my way.

“You never touch things in an Italian market!” She said this with a pinched, urgent look on her face. Her hand sliced through the air as she finished.

“I’m buying this.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said in her tight British accent. “Never.” She turned and walked quickly away.

Hers was the condescending need to educate. She’d likely been in Italy before, perhaps she was one of those British tax or weather exiles that warmer, cheaper European countries seem to attract. Like Canadians in Cancun. She was a fan of D.H. Lawrence, or Shelly and Keats, and she spoke Italian in the same pressed and clipped manner she spoke English. She knew Italy, and had a self-impressed fool’s maternalism over its customs. She saw an American (what else?) and needed to teach him a lesson.

Snippy bitch.


Conversations ranged around us, between customers and clerks, between co-workers, between neighbors and neighboring shopkeepers… and of course we could understand none of it.

“Get your damn bike out of my way!”

“I’ll ride where I want. Move your blasted store.”

“Move my– why you pig-faced sodomite. You ride that thing back this way and I’ll–”

“And I’ll ride over your fat ass. Then I’ll ride over your mother.”

“No mothers! Hey, no mothers! Vino!”


“This son of a bloated pig – hey, whose your mother?! – wants to meet the Father, the Son, *and* the Holy Ghost.”

“Let’s send him on his way then.”

“Come on then, you two. Let’s go. Right now.”

This might have been what they were saying, these three middle-aged, stubby shopkeepers in their white aprons, shapeless caps and open-collar shirts. Might have been, had they not ended the loud, sharp exchange – the hand-clenching, arm-waving, red-faced dialogue – with laughter and claps on each others’ back. The sun had crawled down the high apartment walls and hit the piazza floor.

Something in the Air

DSC_0549_JTHRFKathmandu had shed its night, the dark that descended as I walked alongside the Royal Palace, the dark that brought out the gargantuan bats, the dark that hid broken sidewalks and breaking streets. But as I walked the sleepiness out of my system that first morning, the monochrome grey light at six AM showed nothing more than small carrion birds fighting with the garbage. The city moved barely a twitch. With no real light, it didn’t seem alive.

Then the sun rose and the color took over. Streetsweepers – mothers tending children – wore bright pinks and reds and greens while they swished filth from the center of the road, their saris more vivid for the browns and greys of this brick and rock city they were set against. Young boys with conical straw baskets tied to bicycles as old as dirt used shovels to scoop it up and cart it away. The women swatted and swept, clucking all the while with each other and to their toddlers, and never lost their feminine dignity in the process.

Schoolgirls traipsed up the road in twos and threes, their ochre saris contrasting with their Nepali faces. Perhaps it was less the Nepali-ness of their faces that clashed with the saris than the youth of them. Round, glowing faces they had, cheeks with a ducky flush, unbeguiling eyes – their faces were young but the dress ages old. A vendor parked outside the gates of their school sold pencils, erasers and limp notebook paper common all over the subcontinent.

The smaller streets came to life. Men brushed their teeth at open taps, children wandered sleepy-eyed out of cave-like doorways, women splashed small pots and tin cups in filthy buckets of slime. The shop clerks started their day, some by rolling up a shutter of steel and opening their storefront, others by squatting on the sidewalk and folding back the cloth that covered their basket of papayas or lettuce or bunched carrots carried in through the night. A butcher hacked away at the carcass of a goat that had the scrawny look of a skinned dog, only recognizable by the cloven feet splayed across the steel cutting table. Underneath, exposed necks of wet, still-feathered chicken corpses leaked blood into pools that drained in thick rivulets down the sidewalk. The scene looked like death.

There was beauty as well, to counter the grim reality of daylight in this grey city. The clerk at the Royal Singi hotel counter. She had none of the round ruddiness of the schoolgirls; instead her face was slimmed by adulthood, with a honey tawniness throughout her cheeks, neck and partially bared shoulders. Her slim nose held a tiny jewel in the side that matched the tikal in her forehead. She asked questions appropriate for a hotel clerk used to catering to foreigners: where are you from, where are you going, how long, why so short, what do you do in Tokyo, when will you come back to Nepal – and I in turn told the bellhop beside us how beautiful she was. She, bolder than I, thanked me directly.

Then the two stewardesses on Ghorka Air as we flew into the Terai. Modest to daring skirt lengths, mascara’d eyes and taut bellies peeking out of sari-styled tops. Each had a slash of red dye in the center part of their hair; alas, they were married. Crouching, they walked the length of a cabin not high enough to stand straight up in, passing out candies to suck and cotton balls to plug into our ears. Their hands were thin, fine like a piano player’s; their nails a dark burgundy.

And the 22-year old mother of two. A shopkeeper in Sauraha on the border of the Royal Chitwan National Park, a tiny, dusty settlement in the southern Terai. She had two rows of clean, even teeth that rivaled the whites of her eyes for brightness. Her youngest sat on the floor in a brown shirt and no bottoms, his own dusky bottom the color of his shirt. Her shop could have been a century old; the shelves were dark rotting wood, the ceiling thatch; the floor uneven concrete. Light came from the open front wall and a three-foot high backdoor her older child stood shyly within. I traded 100-yen bracelets I had brought with me from Tokyo. She had better on her wrist already but liked the newness of my goods, and when she put them on and shook them, her youngest squeaked in excited wonder at the sound they made. She smiled and cooed back at him in her own Nepali baby talk. They mirrored each other’s glee, and I was immediately smitten.

There was something in the sounds of Nepal, something in the light of day; there was something in the air.

[This article was originally published many years earlier.]

The Ephemeral Cherry Blossom

[this post was originally written in 2011 just after the Fukushima disaster, updated here in certain senses.]

Here in Shimoda, along the southern coast of Japan about three hours south of Tokyo, we’re still a ways from spring, but we’re still on the verge of the most beautiful of seasons: that of the cherry blossom.


Though it is only February, this coming weekend marks the first real blossom-viewing weekend for us in Shimoda. We are blessed here to be home to the early-blooming variety of blossom called variously “mountain cherry” or “Kawazu cherry,” which blooms in February instead of April. This weekend, given the warm weather, will bring out the first large scale blooming in parks and along water ways, and will be the first of maybe three weekends where we call friends, meet in large groups of those we see regularly and those we don’t see often, and drink and tell stories and gaze at the flowers.

From all these trees

in salads, soups, everywhere

cherry blossoms fall

I like the image of this haiku, of blossoms falling into your soup or salad. Basho’s words, written 320-odd years ago, reveal a very modern sensitivity. With my friends it is much more often a glass of sake or beer that gets hit, but this is no less a pleasant experience. I get the feeling Basho would have approved.


The oak tree stands

noble on the hill even in

cherry blossom time

The image I see here is stoicism, a trait many people in Japan have to exercise regularly. The oak tree, long a symbol of strength and longevity, is also now a symbol of the Japanese person up in Fukushima, Miyage or Ibaraki, who has been uprooted, shaken to the core, and now, in the brightest of seasons, must stand stoic and deal with that which nature has wreaked.

No blossoms and no moon,

and he is drinking sake

all alone!

This is a sad one. In a time of catastrophe, how can you see the beauty of a flower when your friends or family may be gone? How can you appreciate a new season when you can’t even imagine what the next day will bring. Those people now forced to live in refugee centers, surrounded by others, crowded together,..  yet some of them, irreversibly alone.


The cherry blossom is a symbol of beauty in Japan, particularly because of its frailty and ephemeral quality; it only lasts a few short days before it is gone. In this season of change, the concepts of ephemeral and poetic cherry blossoms and the people of Japan are tied tightly together. This season, let friends gather and laugh and appreciate the cherry blossoms,… and a moment later grow quiet.

Two Weeks in India


To say it was eye-opening is an understatement. To comment on the weird, ugly, gross, dirty aspects of India is really easy because those things are everyday, in your face, and memorable, but it also does a disservice to the country and people, which have so much more of what is good and great. I’m trying to come to terms with ”how” to describe something — anything — in a pithy way that doesn’t just come out ”the place smelled like human excrement, but the people were always smiling.” Saying it that way gives the impression of a lone Indian squatting on the tracks beside the train taking his morning dump in front of God, Shiva, and everyone, and smiling like a fool as a trainload of passengers rolls by.


Come to think of it, that’s exactly what you might see on any given morning. So I think about specific places and what I experienced there, and how to balance the beautiful with the bizarre in the retelling. At Jaipur, for example, also known as The Pink City because of the ordinance that all exterior walls of all buildings (within the old city) must be painted pink, we saw 400-year old palaces (pink ones!), we saw the world’s largest sundial, built 300 years ago by a Raj genius and keeping time to the minute even today, and we saw a dead dog in the middle of a busy backroad lay untouched and swelling in the Indian heat for two full days while cars continued to drive around it, people stepped around it, children played around it.


There was a lot of that, and it’ll take some time for me to learn how to tell the stories. I think I have to go back.



JL Tyler PhotographyI was in Tunisia in September 2001, and despite the short period, saw much that impressed me. I’d wondered about Africa for years, not knowing what it held, and yet wanting to see it – any of it, all of it. The little I saw I’ve turned into a few vignettes which I hope you enjoy.

I have not included the entire text as these stories will be published in the near future. If you wish to read the full text or enquire about publishing rights, please contact me here.

1. Necessary Evil

The Oriental Palace Hotel wasn’t the most impressive hotel in Tunis – that distinction belongs to the strangely inverted Grand Hotel du Lac (a structure resembling a pyramid stood on its point) – but it was listed as “five star” in our guide book and, with exchange rates, was affordable. We booked a room from Italy and looked forward to Mediterranean Africa’s first class treatment.

2. The Spice of Life

Tunis is a quiet place, saccharine even, a market town of amber hues and the scent of sandalwood. Habib Bourguiba, the main boulevard, is a tree-lined concourse illuminated in the night by art-nouveau fixtures (think: arches over entrances to the Paris Metro); they turn the city a golden-orange like the Saharan sand. Lining the avenue are moderately-priced hotels, artisan collectives, the city’s only mall, and an off-beat church or two.

3. Attacking Carthage

We walked in Tunis, and it was always hot. We left the Hotel Carlton and walked west. It was mid-morning. At the newsagent stands alongside the road – little cardboard kiosks catering to walkers and drivers pulling over to the sidewalk – the glossy magazine covers were rippling and warped from the blistering, direct sunlight.

The train was stifling, a poorly-ventilated local linking Tunis to Carthage and beyond. Despite the rich, eastern suburbs it eventually served – La Marsa, Sidi Bou Said, Le Corniche – it shuttled a motley crew to points prior. We passed through areas with names like La Goulette (the gullet), Le Bac and Le Kram, where locals got on, sweated, and got off. At Le Bac, the doors smashed open beside us, and a grizzled face with one pulpy socket empty of its eye poked in. He was filthy; his hands were scabbed and black from grime. He held fast to the doors as he swung his head inward and about. When he entered the car fully, the doors rattled shut behind him and he moved through the crowd muttering prayer, or curse, or entreaty.

4. Cafe Life

Tunisian cafes are dark and suffused with a smoky moodiness, and though they lack the life and light of Paris, they are no less integral to one’s day. The Cafe Ezzitouna is within the medina and is dark and oaken rich in color. It is quietly respectable (its name means “The Cafe of the Mosque of the Olive Tree”), and its customers are Medina shop clerks on their breaks. Dim yellow lights light wooden benches along the walls; some are covered with flat, green cushions, some are bare. Every few spaces there is a round pedastle table with copper inlay, and on each is an ashtray. The wet heat of the room is barely disturbed by the dark fan rotating against the carved ceiling, a pattern of squares and crosses. People talk softly if they talk at all.

Failing to Trek

I’ve been to Nepal twice and have yet to make it on a serious trek. What I did instead was hike smaller trails, walk around cities and towns, talk to people, think about where I was and what it meant, and write.

Below you will find the opening paragraphs to seven vignettes from Nepal. I have not included the entire text as these stories will be published in the near future. If you wish to read the full text or enquire about publishing rights, please contact me here.

1. Off to a Good Start

It could have been worse. I was in Thailand; I could have been rolled.

The first morning of the trip, I woke with a jolt and a fierce chill running up my spine. I fell out of the clean bed, the three-star bed chilled by three-star air-conditioning, and stumbled into the bathroom to vomit into the beige porcelain toilet. I stared at the spiral stains in the bowl, stains made from high mineral deposits that have flowed through the bowl for too many years, and waited for my stomach to empty. The wake-up call – a shrill double ring of the hotel phone – sounded again from the other room as my head continued to droop forward. I stood up and coughed, then washed my face and hands. I was afraid to look in the mirror.

2. Something in the Air

Katmandu had shed its night, the dark that descended as I walked alongside the Royal Palace, the dark that brought out the gargantuan bats, the dark that hid broken sidewalks and breaking streets. But as I walked the sleepiness out of my system that first morning, the monochrome grey light at six AM showed nothing more than small carrion birds fighting with the garbage. The city moved barely a twitch. With no real light, it didn’t seem alive.

3. Perambulations and Pick-me-ups

There’s an aspect to Asian travel I learned of personally during my days of shoestring hitching, but which I’d forgotten in these last few years: it involves never getting to your destination in the way you intend.

4. Double Chubby Chuck and a Side of Fries, Please

After flying into Katmandu with my guts significantly strung out, I was appreciably apprehensive about the food. I tried a single grilled cheese sandwich, and this led tentatively to soup, then rice. After my first morning walkabout, I stopped at The Bakery Café, a well-lighted restaurant near Durbar Marg, to test my constitution. Scrambled eggs should be safe enough, I thought, then paused to contemplate the bacon.

5. Walk on the Wild Side

“If you meet bear,” Kamal said, “be aggressive.”

Our group of five stooped low to the ground, the better to see below the brush that thickened at chest-height. The Chitwan jungle was a maze of animal paths that ran helter-skelter under a thick canopy above – boars, tigers, leopards, and bears lived, walked and fed here. Trees were coiled with vines and choked with thick, sweaty leaves; the sky was a forgotten blue; dark, green nature surrounded us. We walked slowly, cautiously, crinking our necks to see forward.

6. And Then There’s The Himal

Tal and Ina were staying in a bungalow next to mine. At first I thought they were French because they stared as I came and went but silently refused to respond to my greetings. Tal was medium-height and slightly overweight, he had thin black hair and was almost bald on the top and back. Ina was a Mediterranean beauty, small and buxom, innocent eyes, skin like olive oil, long wanton hair and a penchant for wearing skin-tight t-shirts and spandex leggings in bright colors. They were playful with each other, and too young to be passionate.

7. All Day, Doing Nothing

Pokhara is a comfort zone. It has the rocky roads of a frontier town, the oxen carts in the street, the piles of cinder blocks, the blacked-out nights, but it also offers hot water showers, fresh croissants, and the tranquil Lake Phewa to drift on or gaze across while contemplating nothing important at all. It is a silk cushion on an up-country train.

Italy Apologia

DSC_9415_JTHRF_sfItaly Apologia

Italy, as any writer who’s been there can attest, is a dream location. Interesting locals, weird tourists, astounding buildings and cities, a history that befuddles the mind trying to comprehend its events…. I spent an insignificant amount of time in Rome, Naples and Pompeii, and from this cursory glance, wrote a series of stories.

  1. Apologia
    We were woken by a swishing, muffled roar. I opened the shutters of the hotel and looked out into the pale light of our first morning in Italy. The highest floors of the buildings opposite were bright with sunlight and shadows hugged the corners down below. The lane was narrow. The buildings across were uniformly five and six stories, and created a canyon of brick and slowly descending light. The cut stones of the lane below were coated slick and dark with the slithering trail of a street washer now passed. The rumble and swipe receded as it crawled down another gorge.
  2.  The Secret of Service
    “You go there.” He was young and not young. A head of black wavy hair, crisp collar on his white linen shirt, an apron, still clean, covering black trousers with a thin silk strip down the outside of each leg. His five o’clock shadow looked unintentional; I imagined him telling the younger waiters to go home and shave when they showed up looking the same. But it gave him a casual authority over the tables. We followed his finger to the wall.
  3. Trading Places
    “Let’s take a walk to the Pantheon, just to say we’ve seen it, then find a restaurant for lunch.” H. has a practical approach to the trip. She wants to see and appreciate the art and culture and history Italy and Rome offer, but she has accepted more readily the schedule we are on. She is making the necessary trade-offs.
  4. Opening Doors
    A single question kept coming to mind as I walked the streets of Rome: how old is this? With monuments and noted buildings, histories are readily available, down to the month and day, but on the street there are no answers. When was this wall put up, this dark imposition with iron bars embedded into its windows and a layer of soot coating the top half of each brick? Or this road? The cobblestones are evenly separated and spaced as if by modern design, but the surface is worn smooth by time, much time.
  5. A Tale of Two Cities

At first glare Naples had nothing that was natural or organic, no subtlety. The only free movement was a shirt sleeve blowing in the wind. In the Quartier Pendino, a valley of grey apartments ran five blocks long and seven stories high. Blotting out the sunlight that fought its way down the narrow canyon was a tangle of tablecloths, towels, shirts, sheets, underwear and black-netted stockings, tied and strung across from building to building. A web of trapped insects straining to escape.


003The Mac Chooser

The Mac Chooser was a monthly column I wrote for Computing Japan, Tokyo’s only English-language IT magazine (now called Japan Inc.) between 1995 and 1997. I only include the first paragraphs below because most of the information is now quite dated.

1. Cutting the Cord

If you can imagine taking a credit card-sized phone out of your wallet, speaking aloud your desired number into the pin head mike, and talking to someone anywhere in the world, you can imagine the future of telephone technology.

2. The Mac – A Cutting Edge Business Machine

“I’ve just bought myself a Powerbook,” said the 49-year old company president. “I’m finally going to learn how to use a computer.”

“First thing you’ve got to do,” I said, “is cut your finger and bleed into the disk drive. You may not know it but you’ve sold your soul to the God of Computers.”

3. Downtime is No Time for Pleasant Chatter

Here it comes again. Another day gone to computer maintenance. You swear office automation and optimum efficiency has got to be easier to achieve, then you curse, a little, then you tilt back your chair and start rebuilding your desktop.

4. Getting on the Internet, and Staying There

Whether we like it or not, the Internet is here to stay. Service suppliers in Tokyo are multiplying like rabbits; everyone and their dog is setting up a home page; and you are the eager beaver raring to get online. In our own effort to understand the system, we’ve put together what we hope is an easy-to-understand set of rules for setting up your home or office computer to communicate online.

5. Office Computing 101

I imagine there are a few office gurus out there, the ones who spend half their days walking over to co-workers’ desks to sort out a “problem.” In most cases, this problem amounts to showing someone how to choose the proper laser printer, or how to indent a series of paragraphs, or how to copy a file directly to a floppy.