the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Month: December, 2014


Mexico City, 25 December, 2014

My wife and I are spending Christmas in Mexico City. Parental love is what draws us to Mexico. Our son has his business here, and this year it is his turn to hold the fort over the busy Christmas period. As the Turkish saying goes, “Dağ sana gelmezse, sen dağa gideceksin”, “If the mountain won’t come to you, you must go to the mountain”. These last few days, together with our daughter (she has been able to escape from her job in New York, but at the price of being often on FaceTime and email with her colleagues), we have been roaming the city and appreciating its delights, both visual and gastronomic. Yesterday, for instance, we visited Frida Kahlo’s house, La Casa Azul, which presents a compact collection of her paintings (including one which I’ve mentioned in a previous post) as well as of paintings by her husband Diego Rivera. And while we stood in the long, long line to get in, we tucked into an assortment of delicious tacos, including one where the filling was a mix of cheese and cactus pads. Cactus pads! That was a first for me.

Everywhere we have been in the city, we have been delighted with great clouds of bougainvillea, mauveimage





clawing their way over roofs, snaking along balconies, tumbling over walls, strangling trees, or simply sculpted into staid bushes.

I’m very fond of bougainvillea. It’s an old friend which I’ve run into in various parts of the world, always places with the sunny, warm climates which I feel very comfortable in, like Eritrea where I was born
or Liguria which my wife introduced me to nearly 40 years ago and to which we return again and again
or Thailand where we live at the moment.

This latest meeting with bougainvillea in Mexico has moved me to use my free time during this holiday period, between visits to the sites and shopping for Christmas lunch and dinner, to explore this beautiful plant’s history. I had always known that its rather fancy name came from the French Admiral Louis Antoine, Comte de Bougainville.
France’s response to Britain’s James Cook, Bougainville was the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe, in the late 1760s, and it was during this trip that bougainvillea was discovered (by Europeans; the locals knew it already of course). It was actually Bougainville’s on-board botanist, Philibert Commerson, who discovered it.


The discovery occurred during an enforced stopover in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro, where Bougainville had decided to regroup and carry out urgent repairs to his two ships. Like most European botanists of the time, Commerson was dazzled by the huge biological diversity he found in Brazil: “this country is the most beautiful in the world”, he wrote home. Something of what he found before him can be gathered from this more-or-less contemporary painting.
Commerson took advantage of the stop in Rio to go out botanizing along the coast and islets of the bay. As he reported to a friend in a letter home, one day he stumbled on this vine, “a wonderful plant with big flowers of a sumptuous violet colour”. He decided to honour Bougainville by naming the plant after him (Bougainville also gave his name to a couple of islands, a couple of straits between islands, and a town in the Falkland Islands). Commerson’s dried sample eventually made it back to France, where it can still be viewed, faded but nevertheless recognizable.

We can leave the story of bougainvillea there; suffice to say that the first period of globalization which came with European colonialism spread the pretty plant far and wide. But its discovery in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro gives me pause. That wonderful botanical diversity which so took Commerson’s breath away has been sadly depleted. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the bay of Rio de Janeiro was enveloped by the Mata Atlântica, the Atlantic Forest. This mighty forest stretched unbroken from north-east Brazil all the way down the Atlantic coastline as far as Uruguay, and spread into north-eastern Argentina and eastern Paraguay. It once covered some one and a half million square kilometres, but three hundred years of deforestation for logging and farming have seen it become the second most threatened biome in the world, after Madagascar. Today, less than a tenth of the original forest area remains.

There is some light in all the gloom. Despite all the loss and habitat fragmentation, the region is still ranked in the top five of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. It is particularly remarkable for its bird species. In 2001, wanting to preserve what was left if not reverse some of the damage (to which his own ancestors had contributed), a farsighted owner of farmland at the base of the mountains, in the valley of the Guapiaçu river, some 80 kilometres north-east of Rio, established an ecological Reserve, the Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu (REGUA). REGUA’s objective is to protect the remaining forest and biodiversity from deforestation, hunting, and over-extraction of natural resources. With funds from the World Land Trust and others, REGUA has bought land to consolidate and extend the Reserve. Over 100,000 trees, all native species, have been planted, wetlands have been recreated, some animal species have been reintroduced, hunters have been turned into guides, and visitors are encouraged to come and share in this wonderful effort. If I know all this, it is because my wife and I financially supported the planting of a modest number of trees and stayed at the Reserve’s lodge for several days, going out on a birding expedition, inspecting our tree seedlings and the-then nascent wetlands, and just generally enjoying ourselves.
We hope to go back there one day, to see how our trees are doing. And maybe we’ll spot some bougainvillea in its natural state, ruthlessly climbing over some unfortunate tree, choking the life out of it.

Mauve bougainvillea: (in
Red bougainvillea: (in
Orange bougainvillea: (in
White bougainvillea: (in
Eritrean highlands: (in
Liguria: (in
Thailand: (in
Bougainville: (in
Commerson:çon#/image/File:Commerson_Philibert_1727-1773.png (inçon)
Brazilian jungle:
Commerson’s dried sample:
REGUA: (in



Bangkok, 21 December, 2014

Her name was Vivian Maier. She died not long ago, in 2009, at the age of 83, a spinster and childless, and penniless. She had spent some forty years, from the mid-1950s on, being a nanny for various well-off families in the Chicago area.

And she was a gifted photographer of the streets, mainly those of Chicago and New York.

She spent every possible minute that she could taking photos: in all her free time, but also when she was taking her charges for walks or to the playgrounds, as well as on her one big trip around the world, which she made in the early sixties. She took hundreds of thousands of photos. But hardly any of these made it past the stage of negatives, and many didn’t even get that far; they just stayed as rolls of unprocessed film.

She was a compulsive hoarder. She kept all the negatives and all the film rolls, and the 8 mm films she made, and the audio tapes she recorded, and just about everything else she had ever owned or collected, in cardboard boxes, old suitcases, and other containers. As she moved from one nannying job to another, she offloaded her accumulating stuff into a commercial storage space. In 2007, after she failed to keep up with her payments, the storage company auctioned her stuff off.

It looked like her work was about to disappear. But a number of photo collectors bought at the auction. They recognized a spark of genius in her photos and started trying to publicize them. A first attempt by Ron Slattery in 2008, who posted some of her photos on the internet, failed to generate much interest. Then in October 2009, six months after she died, another of the collectors, John Maloof, put some of his trove of her photos on Flickr, linked them to his blog, and the results went viral (this is a very modern story). Things snowballed from there, and her work is now beginning to garner a fair amount of critical and popular praise.

Would Vivian Maier have wanted this recognition? That is one of the questions touched upon in a fascinating documentary which John Maloof put together entitled “Finding Vivian Maier”. He tells the story of how after his initial purchase of her stuff he went on a voyage of discovery of who she was and what she did – quite a detective story – and he interviews a number of the children she nannied and their parents to try to understand what kind of person she was. It was seeing this film that moved me to write this post. I highly recommend my readers to see it if they have not done so already. And, by the way, according to the people who had known her, the answer to the question with which I started this paragraph is, probably yes for her work, but she would have intensely disliked to have the light of publicity shone on her; she was a very private person.

For those readers who want to get a taste of her work, I suggest you visit the site I add here, from that same site, some of her photos which most struck me, to whet your appetite.








I prefer her black-and-white photos, but I add a few of her colour photos



That last one, with her shadow, leads naturally to a few of her self-portraits. She took a lot of photos of herself.




In a sad postscriptum, I have just read that Vivian Maier’s estate has got entangled in a challenge about who owns the copyright to her photos. The result is that it will be probably harder to see her works for the next several years. If my readers get a chance to see an exhibition, on no account miss it. It might be a long time before you get another chance.



Bangkok, 9 December 2014

We have just finished celebrating H.M. the King’s birthday here in Bangkok. Truth to tell, “celebrating” may be a little of an overstatement. My wife and I found it quite a muted affair. For instance, the fireworks in the evening were really quite brief and modest, while a drive-by of high officials, which we just happened to find ourselves witnesses to, was greeted with silence by the folk lining the road side. What was out in full force, though, were the yellow shirts. They had already been popping up with greater and greater insistence in the days running up to the great day. But on the birthday itself the pavements were a sea of yellow.
Many were wearing yellow T-shirts made specifically for the purpose, but many others (who didn’t get included in the official photos) gave the impression of having grabbed the first yellow, or near-yellow, shirt or blouse they could find in their wardrobe. So the palette of yellows went all the way from pastel yellow through to citrine. Given the recent history of Thailand, one began to wonder if the choice of hue was a political statement of some sort. That man with the orange shirt, for instance, was it just the closest thing he had to yellow in his drawer, or was it actually the closest he dared get to the dreaded colour red? Or that woman over there with the pastel yellow blouse, had she simply been caught short without anything really yellow in her closet, or was she actually signalling her lack of enthusiasm for the whole exercise? Or what about the few people without yellow shirts? What, if anything, was their message? That student, for example, with the green shirt, what was he trying to tell us?

Thus are the seeds of paranoia sown ….

(By the way, for those of you who may be interested, the King’s colour is yellow because he was born on a Monday. Based on Hindu mythology, Thai (and Khmer) tradition assigns different colours to each day. For those of you who may be fascinated by this arcane point, I recommend you visit the following site on Wikipedia)

Colours have been recruited to support political quarrels since time immemorial. When I was young, red was the colour of Marxism in all its forms (Social-Democratic, Socialist, Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, Vietminh, Khmer Rouge, …). We have the French Jacobins
to thank for this association of red with the left of the political spectrum. For reasons which are too complicated to explain here, the Jacobins adopted the red flag as their own during the French Revolution, and the tradition continued in the European Left thereafter. I suppose we are all aware of the red symbols of the Left: the flags, the official art, the scarves, the buttons. But my preferred symbol of redness are the Garibaldini, those 1,000 or so red-shirted volunteers who, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, sailed away in 1860 from Genoa to Sicily and in a few short months of fighting completed the unification of Italy.
I have to add here a painting of the Great Man himself, whose statue graces at least one square, and whose name graces at least one street, in every village, town, and city of Italy.


I like Garibaldi, I’ve liked him ever since as a teenager I studied the unification of Italy for my O level History. By way of introduction to Garibaldi, our teacher told us about his earlier exploits in South America. The only thing that sticks in my mind about these worthy endeavors is our teacher’s description of how Garibaldi met his wife. He was on a boat on the Río de la Plata, where he was inspecting something or other through a telescope. He noticed his future wife on the bank, washing clothes or some such. After one look at her, he said (and here the teacher put on a thick Italian accent and struck an operatic pose), “Brring me to herr!”

But back to colours and politics. In the interwar years the red of the Socialists and Communists was violently opposed by various other colours. It was the black-shirted Fascists in Italy, seen here in the March on Rome in 1922
and the black-shirted Fascists in Spain, seen here jubilating at the fall of Irun during the Spanish Civil War.
In Germany, it was the brown-shirted Nazis.
From here my memory leaves coloured shirts and vaults back some 500 years or so to the gardens at the Inner Temple in London, where – at least, according to Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part I – the Lords of Court chose which side to be on in the upcoming War of the Roses, by plucking either a white rose (the Yorkists) or a red rose (the Lancastrians) from rose bushes growing in the garden. Colours again, defining which side you would be taking in the looming political struggle. The scene is caught in this much romanticized painting from the 1870s.

The Lancastrian Red Roses and the Yorkist White Roses fought it out for 30 years until Richard III was unhorsed and killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and Henry VII was crowned in his place. As a symbol of a once-more unified country, Henry devised a new badge for his dynasty, a mixed red-and-white rose now called the Tudor Rose.
A very clever piece of political manipulation through colour …

Talking of using colours for political purposes, we can fast-forward 300 years to the French Revolution and watch the storming of the Bastille.
The Paris militia played a prominent role in the attack. To distinguish themselves from other groups taking part, they wore a blue and red cockade in their hats, Paris’s traditional colours.


The people of Paris were elated by this victory. But the more moderate – more aristocratic – elements of the revolutionary camp were alarmed by what they saw as rampaging – and armed – mobs. It was decided to create a National Guard out of the Paris militia under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette, a moderate revolutionary with military experience (gained during the American Revolution) and with the trust of King Louis XVI. Lafayette proposed to add white to the militia’s blue and red cockade. His argument was that this would turn what was mainly a Parisian militia into a national force: white was then the national colour.
imageBut in a political system where all things national were the King’s, this was also a way of saying “revolutionaries yes, but still loyal to the King”. Well, things didn’t quite work out that way, but thus was born the red, white, and blue cockade, which even King Louis gracefully accepted to wear – at least for a little while.


The cockade morphed into the flag, which became a symbol of hope for some

and the dread of many more as French troops unfurled like a tsunami over much of Europe.


Rampaging mobs makes my mind spin back more than a thousand years to Constantinople and to its hippodrome, home of the city’s chariot races. Chariot racing was to the Romans and the Byzantines what soccer is today to many people the world over, a mania, a fixation. All over the Roman world, there were four factions, the Greens, the Blues, the Whites, and the Reds, and all chariots in a race belonged to one of these four factions. The charioteers, as well as the fans, wore the colours of their faction, like in this mosaic in Lyon.


Like soccer players today, charioteers could and did change faction, but like soccer fans today the fans never did. If you chose to follow the Greens, you were a Green for life. Like soccer today, the enthusiasm of the fans inside the hippodrome often turned into hooliganism and gang warfare outside it. Like soccer today in some parts of the world where there is no recognized outlet for political and social frustrations, factional fighting became a way to vent political anger and score political points.

So it was in Constantinople in 532 AD, when Justinian I was Emperor. By now, there were only really two chariot factions that counted, the Blues and the Greens. Justinian supported the Blues so his enemies at court naturally supported the Greens. Justinian was in the midst of negotiating a badly-needed peace settlement with the Persians, and he had to have peace on the home front. But the people of Constantinople were angry: taxes were crushingly high. There had been politically motivated rioting after some earlier chariot races and a number of rioters had been hanged. But this did not calm excited spirits. For some strange reason, Justinian thought another day of chariot races would pour oil over troubled waters. The races started alright, with Blues and Greens vociferously supporting their teams, even though they also hurled insults at the Emperor, sitting – no doubt a bit nervously – in the imperial box. By the end, though, the two factions united in a common roar of “Nika! Conquer!” With that, the spectators burst out of the hippodrome and assaulted the palace, which conveniently abutted the hippodrome. For the next five days, they laid siege to it, demanding reductions in taxes and the dismissal of the prefect responsible for collecting the taxes and the quaestor responsible for rewriting the tax code. For good measure, they declared Justinian deposed and raised a new Emperor in his place. In the resulting mayhem, fires broke out which eventually burned down half the city.

Initially, Justinian panicked and was looking to scarper. But his wife Theodora was made of sterner stuff and stiffened his spine. Once his funk had passed, Justinian reverted to a true-and-tried method: gold. He got his eunuch Narses to go into the hippodrome, where the Greens and Blues were about to crown the new Emperor, with a large bag of gold. Narses quietly joined the heads of the Blue faction. He reminded them that Justinian was a Blue and that he had always supported them, he pointed out that the new Emperor was a Green and they could surely imagine what would happen to them under him, and then he distributed the gold. The faction leaders held a quiet conference, then spread the word among their followers. In the middle of the coronation, the Blues suddenly all stormed out of the hippodrome, leaving the Greens sitting stunned in their seats. At which point, imperial troops under trusted generals burst into the hippodrome and massacred all and sundry. It is reported that thirty thousand people died that day.

All in the name of colours …

Colours have been hitched to the wagon of many other political causes. Green has morphed from the colour of Byzantine charioteering factions to the colour of modern environmental factions, and we now hear of Deep Green and Light Green factions, each trading barbed – and not so barbed – insults about the depth of their commitment to the cause. We have Hindu fanatics cladding themselves in the colour saffron, a colour with deep religious connotations in Hinduism, and going on rampages against non-Hindus. And on and on … Readers who are interested in the topic can do no worse than go to this Wikipedia site.

But, misquoting Elton John, all I want to say is “Don’t shoot me, I’m only a colour”.

Yellow-shirts celebrating the King’s birthday:
Meeting of a Jacobin club: (in
Garibaldini fighting: (in
Garibaldi: (in
The March on Rome: (in
Spanish fascists in Irun: (in
Brown shirts marching: (in
Scene in the Temple Garden: (in
Henry VII and Tudor rose: (in
Storming of the Bastille: (in
Arms of Paris: ( in
Royal standard of France: (in
Louis XVI: (in
Liberty guiding the People:ène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2.jpg/967px-Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2.jpg (inène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple-2.jpg)
Revolution as ogre: (in
Mosaic of chariot race: (in


Bangkok, 5 December 2014

I’ve just come back from a trip to Phnom Penh. My wife accompanied me, so for a couple of days, while I was doing the official rounds and meeting the official people, she was nosing around the city enjoying herself. She regaled me every evening with her discoveries, making me green with jealousy. But we had decided that I would take a day off at the end of my official rounds and spend a long weekend together being tourists, so I told myself to be patient and bide my time. On Friday, Andy (not his real name, but tour guides in this part of the world will often adopt a Western name to make it easier for us dumb Westerners), Andy as I say, was waiting for for us at the door of the hotel with his tuk-tuk


in which he swept us off (well, “swept off” may be exaggerated, given the venerable speed at which tuk-tuks go) for a visit to Oudong, Cambodia’s capital prior to Phnom Penh. After puttering across the flat plain surrounding Phnom Penh for a while, we finally sighted in the distance the phnom (“hill” in Khmer) which had been the centre of Oudong.
After some more puttering, we arrived at the base of this hill, and were immediately surrounded by a cloud of boys shouting greetings, asking us where we came from, and directing us to the loo (after nearly two hours of puttering, we were both more than ready to answer calls of nature).

Following this pit stop, we made for the steps which would carry us to the top of the phnom. We huffed and we puffed slowly up the steps – all 509 of themimage
accompanied by a charming little boy, one of the cloud, who went by the name of Monette. His English was approximate, but he used it bravely to explain to us the sights we passed, the first of which was some exceedingly cheeky monkeys who hung around the steps like a pack of bad boys, ready to snatch lotus flowers from the unwary passer-by and snack on their stamens (or do I mean their pistils?)


One did just that to a group of young women in front of us, who came running back down the stairs screaming and clutching at each other. I moved forward bravely towards the insolent monkey as he sat on the steps munching the stamens (or do I mean pistils?). He looked me in the eye, and calmly walked off into the surrounding bushes holding his booty and showing me his bum. I mustered as much of my dignity as I could and Carried On.

With one final heaving huff and one further ragged puff, we staggered to the top. With the excuse of admiring the view

we took a break. But soon we turned around and took in the first of five stupas which crown the hill.


After walking around it, we wended our way along the crest, from one stupa to the next, with Monette scampering along and giving us fractured, splintered explanations, until we got to the last, a stupa with four faces.


Well! This was a pleasant discovery! Those four faces staring benevolently out to the four cardinal points were intriguing indeed.


I must confess, my first – wholly irreverent – thought was that they reminded me of Thomas the Tank Engine of my youth.


But then another memory floated to the surface, from several years ago when my wife and I visited Angkor Wat, several hundred kilometers upriver from where we were currently standing, on the edges of Tonle Sap lake: Prasat Bayon, the shrine to Mahayana Buddhism, the temple of the 200 faces of Lokesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Yes, this must have been the model of the stupa before me.




Ah, what a lovely, lovely temple is Prasat Bayon! The bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas smiling at you wherever you stand, wherever you look. A thousand rays of compassion sweeping us visitors and what had been the surrounding city.

But King Jayavarman VII, who built the temple and who replaced the Khmers’ state religion of Hinduism with Mahayana Buddhism (and whose face, many think, was the model of the bodhisattvas at Prasat Bayon)


merely copied from a previous model for his design, that of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. Brahma is very often represented with four heads, each reading one of the four Vedas. Temples dedicated to him are rare, but there was one close to Angkor Wat, on Phnom Bok. The quadruple-headed bust below, from that temple, is now in the Musée Guimet in Paris, no doubt “taken in for its protection” (or do I mean filched?) by the-then French colonial masters.


There is also a regionally famous Brahma-derived statue here in Bangkok, down the road (as it were) from where we live: Phra Phrom (a Thai rendition of Brahma).


He is considered the deity of good fortune and protection. Since he has a solid following among the Chinese of Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and knowing the proclivity of the Chinese to gamble, I rather suspect that Brahma has gone from being the god of creation to the god of gamblers. How the mighty have fallen …

And on this melancholy note, it was time to leave my reveries and move on. My wife and I made our way back down the hill, at the bottom of which we gave Monette 10 dollars for his services, enjoining him to use it for his schooling (he had informed us that he was going to a paying school) but fearing that it might end up instead in the pockets of his “minders”. We picked our way past the rubbish left by previous visitors and a monkey snacking on the boiled rice thrown away by one of them, we climbed into Andy’s tuk-tuk, and we puttered our way back to Phnom Penh.

Andy’ tuk-tuk: (in
Oudong from a distance: (in
Stairs at Oudong: (in
Monkey: (in
View from the top: (in
First stupa: (in
Stupa with faces: (in
Stupa with faces – close up: (in
Thomas the tank engine: (in
Bayon temple-1: (in
Bayon temple-2: (in
Bayon temple-3:ächeln_von_Angkor.jpg (in
King Jayavarman VII: (in
Brahma:ée_Guimet_1197_1.jpg (in
Phra Phrom: (in