This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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The real New York City

manhattanAs I stood by the DUMBO waterfront I tried to calculate how many people these huge boxy buildings on the opposite shore would contain, any given moment in time. This is the Manhattan skyline as as we know it. “As WE know it”. Because really, just 150 years ago it was like any old town. And just 500 years ago, when Europe was restless because of religious reformations against the Catholic church and Shakespeare wrote his famous plays, Manhattan was mostly swampland. With mosquitoes.

Times Square was a crossing of two rivers and a beaver pond. There were salt marshes and grasslands and forests, all home to turkeys, beavers, elk, and those mosquitoes. The area holding up the skyscrapers I was looking at was sea floor (much of lower Manhattan is landfill). This is the real New York. If this is news to you you might like this excellent article by the National Geographic.

My view of Manhattan is a fart in the history of time. Quickly formed, possibly also not very durable. And yet this is the “iconic” New York “we all know”. Hudson, visiting in 1609, knew the beavers. I doubt city kids today know beavers from anything else than school books (sorry, educational internet websites).

Were do New Yorkers go to rewild? Is Central Park enough or does one have to leave this once so lush and bountiful island?mannahatta.ngsversion.1502920743252.adapt.1900.1

Lower photo humbly borrowed from “Before New York”, National Geographic, September 2009

(New York, USA; April 2019)


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History underground

brooklyn-6When learning about a foreign city, one can go to history museums. Or art museums. Or the more random museums, like the New York transport museum, hosted in an old unused subway station. And learn how, long ago, subway trains had nearly stylish rattan imitation seats.

Or how, even longer ago, before there were subway trains there were streetcars, jam-packed with gentlemen in hot sweaty suits and ladies with two-meter circumference of crinoline squeezing together like sardines in a can. In rush hour surely the streetcar spilled over with skirt hoops and lace and top hats. brooklyn-5The most interesting detail of the Transport Museum is the advertising on the walls of old train cars. Much of it is from WWII, and the strangest references were made to the war. It is also a reminder of how the government raised its own citizens’ money to fight a war outside of US turf by issuing war bonds yielding less than the market rate of other reasonable investments.

Some lovely soul has also been fixated with turnstiles. Yes, turnstiles. There is a collection of probably every single model of turnstile used in the history of the NYC subway. And that is surprisingly many – we just do not pay attention. Someone more attentive did – and collected them all. 🙂brooklyn-4(NYC Transport Museum, Brooklyn, NYC, USA; April 2019)


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DUMBO

brooklyn-3There are photos of the Brooklyn bridge. And then there are photos of people taking photos of the Brooklyn bridge. Same goes for DUMBO beach and the Manhattan skyline. Some heavy cropping was required to weed out tourists in red and orange jackets, absolutely not suitable for being in the frame.

Photography is always reality enhanced. But the fabulous, urban views from DUMBO are real. And so is the lovely restaurant by the waterfront across the beach, with a glass of cool wine if you prefer.brooklyn-8(Brooklyn, USA; April 2019)


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The Duomo in winter

duomoThis was my first visit to Milan without visiting the Duomo. No time, you see, as I only passed it while walking to dinner. I am not a religious person, but I quite like the ambiance of this church, especially during Sunday mass.

In summer, the square is crowded and people wait in zig-zagging lines to enter a security control. In winter there is no security control, nor masses of tourists lining up. The church is still the same. As it took the best of 600 years to complete into its current state, hopefully it will still remain the same for another 600 years to come. Unless tourists of the future only care about virtual reality representations and tours.

(Milan, Italy; January 2019)


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The Pantheon

rome-6“Pantheon” means “of all gods”. Was this really a temple of all gods? Or many gods? One would like to think it was once a site of inclusion of faiths, not exclusion. But perhaps the Romans just had so many gods they built one to serve the most important ones?

This is how Rome could have looked like still today if people had continuously found use for the buildings once erected. Even 1900 years later the Pantheon is still fully functional – and admired by throngs of visitors every single day.
rome-5(Rome, Italy; September 2018)


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Rome after the rain

rome-10There was rain throughout our meeting. And right before our walking guide gave up the sky cleared up just a little, enough for a stroll around.rome-9At the age of eighteen I spent one day in Rome. During these two days I saw less of Rome than back then. And what I saw now was mostly the same sights as twenty years ago. rome-4But twenty years is nothing for the Eternal City. Two hundred years may cause a few major collapses, such as the one of the Colosseum. Two thousand years is possibly half of the age of Rome, if one adds the Roman population we know from history books to the Etruscans and other tribes who originally inhabited the seven hills of Rome. rome-3Today many of the ruins are under scaffolds. Either Italy has cash enough or it just seems so as in the city of endless ruins there is endless restoration work to be done. And sometimes new buildings are erected, too, such as the monument for the first king of the unified Italy: the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument from 1935 (also more fondly known as “the typewriter”). Today this humongous monument looks nearly modern. Perhaps two thousand years in the future it will be a heap of pillars and ruins, and a virtual reality as good as new.rome-8(Rome, Italy; September 2018)


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Opium and the origins of Singaporean wealth

opiumIt is a sobering reminder to have the text “DEATH for drug traffickers under Singapore law” written on my visitor pass. How ironic it is, then, that much of Singapore’s past is linked to hard drugs: opium trade between China and the British Empire.

As the British empire is credited as the founders of Singapore, and Britain became an empire to a large extent thanks to the cash flowing in from opium, much of Singapore’s colonial wealth and growth momentum could also be attributed to this highly addictive and devastating drug, flowing out from British India towards China, through Singapore’s harbors.

As I amble through the National Museum of Singapore, none of this is mentioned anywhere. Instead what I see are a few old opium pipes and a reproduction of an old awareness article painting the picture of what happens to a man and his family when he gets hooked on opium (spoiler: in the end he makes his wife work for him so he can buy more opium, and finally he dies leaving his wife without a legal guardian). What is mentioned is that Thomas Stamford Raffles, one of the two credited founders of Singapore, was against gambling and addition, and evicted his British co-founder who was into these decadent activities. The Brits seem to politely be hailed as patrons of Singapore.

The National Museum does have one exhibition that highly contrasts against the politeness of Singaporean culture: one covering the Japanese invasion during 1942-45. It leaves no sense of ambiguity and starkly accuses Japan of ethnocide of any “anti-Japanese” Chinese, as well as an attempt at annihilating local culture. The exhibition explains that the Japanese vision was to wipe out all other languages and to instil a uniform national identity. When children were required to learn and to speak Japanese in school, many parents refused to send their children to school. When the older adult generation was required to learn Japanese for work, they chose to stay at home if they could. Those who spoke the language received incentives and benefits, but the above combined with the degree of difficulty in learning Japanese made the attempt of introducing culture via language a failure.

Three years seems like a short while, but my impression from the exhibition is that it was a difficult and dark time. The proper building of modern Singapore began in the 1950s-60s, with a positive outlook after the people had decided they did not want to be part of Malaysia. Indeed, in the 60s there was an attempt at merging little Singapore with its larger neighbor, but people objected and the merger was short-lived. It must have been a brave decision to try to survive on one’s own, geographically sandwiched between Indonesia and the West, and Malaysia to the North and Northeast. But what must have been a very thought-through economical growth strategy worked, as Singapore is now considered a prime economy in all of Southeast Asia.

Opium trade, why would anyone think of such ancient times anyway?

(Singapore; July 2018)