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Archive for May 2014

Reading teen romances in Liechtenstein

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The book: Kelly Blake, Teen Model #4 by Yvonne Greene

The place: Vaduz Tourist Train, Liechtenstein

There are many, many reasons why my friend Clare is an excellent holiday companion, but not least of them is her habit of bringing loads and loads of books harvested from charity shops on holiday with her, which I can then steal and read before they are discarded. I confess that Kelly Blake, Teen Model was only one of multiple books of the same ilk that were read and discarded en route – some Sweet Dreams teen romance novel, a Lurlene McDaniel book (never read one of those before, but apparently she’s famous for dying-teen misery-porn), and another teen model book, seemingly sponsored by Ford Models. As an avid reader of Sweet Valley high when I was around 12 or 13, I would have loved to have known about these books at the time.


I am quite dismissive about Checkbox Travel, and have ranted about the Travelers’ Century Club on multiple occasions (they count layovers! And for years they counted Tasmania as sufficiently separate from the rest of Australia to count separately, but not South Sudan vis-à-vis Sudan! Etc.!) but I admit that there was an element of that in play when Clare and I decided to visit Liechtenstein. We had relatively little time available for a trip, and wanted to go somewhere neither of us had been before, but relatively close to home, which more or less narrowed it down to a European microstate (sorry Andorra, better luck next time!). My expectations for Liechtenstein were therefore not so much low as non-existent. However: Liechtenstein turned out to be amazing, primarily for two reasons:

  • The Liechtenstein Adventure Pass, which gives you free entrance into all sorts of places you wouldn’t necessarily have thought to go to, but when they are all magically free (but for the price of the pass) they become a lot more appealing (winetasting at 9am? Why not? Walser Museum in Triesenberg? Don’t mind if I do!). Plus, free bus travel! Plus plus, the right to a souvenir passport stamp, which I probably shouldn’t have used as my passport is full enough already, but I could not resist.
  • Our amazing airbnb hosts, Bettina and Christian, in Eschen, a village to the north of the country (about as far away from the capital Vaduz as from one side of Glasgow to the other) – who could not have been more welcoming and helpful and willing to ply us with fondue and CHOCOLATE fondue and various boozes and talk to us about Liechtenstein and Scottish independence until the small hours of the morning. Love them.


This was the view from Bettina and Christian’s back garden, where we had breakfast every morning, and drinks every evening. The small item on the lawn is lawnmowing Roomba, and thus basically the best thing in the world.


Fondue. It’s not just for 1970s swinger parties, you know.

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We flew in and out of Basel, which boasts an airport that manages to be in three countries simultaneously, and ferries that cross the Rhine powered by nothing more than the river’s natural current.

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Basel also boasts a paper museum, housed in an old mill by the Rhine., where one can actually MAKE PAPER and do typesetting and various other things. (Another advantage of going on holiday with Clare is her encyclopaedic knowledge of the world’s museums, and her insistence on going to them, which I would very rarely do off my own bat, but which I almost always end up enjoying enormously.)

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Vaduz has a very good line in public art, clustered around its contemporary art museum. The thing on my right was my favourite:  two steel plates with a square cut in them, between them a constantly arcing jet of water, under which one can stand. I found this utterly delightful.

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Vaduz also has a good line in vineyards within city limits, through which one can walk. More cities should have this sort of thing.

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And views. Lots of views. (Enhanced by the fact that from certain points you can see pretty much the entire country at once.)

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The National Museum has exhibits related to local culture (the top picture shows the wooden markers that Liechtensteiner cows wear on their heads) and religious artefacts (middle picture is a huge Lent-related tapestry) and, inexplicably, tartan-covered stags’ heads lining the stairwell.


View from the train on our way back to Basel. Very Chalet School.

Written by Jess

May 25, 2014 at 10:01 pm

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Reading ‘Fun Home’ in Glasgow

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The book: Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

The place: in bed, at home in Glasgow

Oh lovely, lovely flat, in which I am all too rarely! The photo above represents the utterest bliss: book, bed, an open window, late Glasgow spring (equivalent to winter in many places, but still), Radio 3 (not pictured). I realise that the intense joy I get from such a simple thing is because it is so rare, but sometimes I wish it were slightly less so.

And look, an actual paper book, with pages and a cover and weight and heft! I adore my Kindle beyond all reason – it is technology beyond the wildest dreams of my teenage self, who carefully curated her three longest and best-loved books to take with her on a three-month student exchange to Germany* – or indeed even my self of five years ago, when I moved to Khartoum with three-quarters of my luggage allowance taken up by books. But practicality aside, reading an actual physical book remains a delight. And of course for comic books, hardcopy’s more or less then only option, unless I decide to upgrade to a Kindle Fire or similar, which I have no desire to do. (No thank you, I do not want unfettered internet access on the device I primarily use for reading. I know technically that one can browse the internet on a Paperwhite, but a friend once described the Kindle ‘experimental browser’ as the way people in the early 1990s imagined the internet, and that is spot-on.)

I’d never actually read any Bechdel before, despite being vaguely aware of Dykes to Watch Out For and, of course, the fabulous Bechdel Test. But Fun Home is wonderful: erudite and thoughtful and funny and moving all at once. I was sorry to finish it.

*The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley; Fatherland, Thomas Harris; and … something by Jilly Cooper. Polo? Rivals?

Written by Jess

May 21, 2014 at 2:24 pm

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Reading ‘The Collective’ between Nairobi and London

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The book: The Collective, Stephen King

The place: A flight from Nairobi to London (no photograph available due to exhaustion and despair).

A few days behind on this one, as it’s taken a while to recover from the intense and violent rage engendered by this flight. I fly a lot, twenty flights to far this year, with three more scheduled within the next week – you would think that I would have developed a Zen acceptance of all the discomfort and inconvenience flying brings, and in that case you’d probably be right. I have an enviable ability to effectively go into a state of suspended animation on long flights, shutting down any bodily functions or needs beyond breathing, basic circulation and swiping to turn the page on my Kindle. What I have not developed a Zen acceptance of is the execrable behaviour of fellow passengers.

Listen. I am not unreasonable. I recognise that my fellow passengers are probably not all serial murderers, genocidaires or similarly morally repugnant individuals, fit only to be cast into outer darkness. Probably these people have friends, families, and interests. I expect they are kind to animals and tear up at the end of <i>Titanic</i>. However this does not detract from my fierce desire to cause them extreme bodily harm, owing to their utter disregard for what I consider to be the basics of air travel etiquette.

The problem with air travel is that it has developed so fast that it is taking time for rules of etiquette to catch up. No one knows how to behave, except (obviously) for me. Here are my rules of air travel behaviour:

  1. On passing through security, do not, by any means, stand in front of the x-ray belt waiting for your items, and then block access for everyone else while you painstakingly re-loop your belt and rearrange your various electronic items in their respective pockets. NO. Collect your items, retreat to a neutral area and repack away from everyone else. Yes, even your shoes. I have walked through vast tracts of airports barefoot as a result of this policy, and it has never done me any harm.
  2. On boarding the plane, find your seat as quickly as possible, and then SIT THE HELL DOWN, waiting for everyone to find their respective places before shoving your oversized and misshapen handluggage into the overhead compartment. Do not stand blocking the aisle as people back up behind you coaxing your luggage into the compartment. NO.
  3. Do you have a tiny bladder, or some sort of physical need to leap to your feet and wander around every couple of hours? Then BY NO MEANS request a window seat. You will miss some views. That is no less than you deserve.
  4. Observe strict armrest and legroom discipline. Legroom: you are permitted ONLY the space immediately in front of your seat. Is any part of your leg to the right or the left of the join between your seat and the next? Then you are breaching legroom etiquette. Likewise armrests. Middle seat has armrest privileges owing to it being the worst seat. Aisle seat takes aisle armrest; window seat has whole wall to lean against so has no armrest privileges.
  5. If you are the person who rams their seat back as far as it can go the second the seatbelt sign is turned off, and keeps it that way until ordered by cabin crew to put it up because the plan is about to land, you are literally the worst kind of person.

Written by Jess

May 20, 2014 at 5:58 pm

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Reading ‘Mongol’ between Mogadishu and Nairobi

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The book: Mongol, Uuganaa Ramsay

The place: A plane between Mogadishu, Wajir and Nairobi

When you fly from Mogadishu to Nairobi, your bag gets checked at least five times. Yesterday morning, leaving Mogadishu, I arrived at the airport in my obligatory armoured car to find that all entrances to the airport had been closed, due to a rumour of a bomb in a vehicle. This meant that I had to get out of the car at one of the gates, waiting to have my bag searched for about ten minutes. (Almost) anywhere else, that would be a mild irritation; in Somalia, where the visibly foreign are routinely targeted by Al Shabaab, it was mildly terrifying – but at the same time, there was a small thrill in actually being outside in the Mogadishu streets, without an armed guard. (I made sure to keep at least two people between me and the street at all times – better safe than sorry, &c.) There was a worrying moment when then glowering Somali soldier searching my bag seemed to injure his hand on its contents – I blame a nail-clipper – but I did a lot of exaggerated smiling and cringing and he let me go. Then through a sandbagged corridor to another checkpoint, this time staffed by AMISOM; then to the airport itself – slogging through pale, fine sand, as close to a Somali beach as I’m ever likely to come – where a very angry-seeming man corralled everyone into strict lines and waved his stick threateningly at any infractions. Once inside, my bag and I were checked again, and finally allowed to pass through check-in and immigration. Bag-check count: 3.

All flights from Mogadishu to Nairobi stop in Wajir, the first Kenyan airstrip over the border as you’re flying from Somalia. Coming down over Wajir is rather striking: orange sand speckled with low, round, olive-green bushes; thatched huts patched with tarpaulins, with land demarcated by bone-coloured thorn fences. It looks more like South Sudan than anywhere in Kenya I’ve ever been. I’m not sure whether the stop in Wajir is solely a security measure, but that seems to be its main purpose, with another bag check, passing through Kenyan immigration and being funnelled into a small, surprisingly comfortable waiting room (where the television was playing what appeared to be a Nigerian drama heavily featuring bagpipe music – what) and then back onto the plane. And then finally, on arrival in Nairobi, passengers from Somalia are isolated in an anteroom before proceeding into immigration, where (yes) bags and documents are checked again. “We have to line up now,” a very dapper Somali gentleman explained to me wearily, “so they can check us against the manifest.” He was clearly very used to the procedure.

It’s interesting the extent to which security arrangements dictate one’s experience of a place. I know organisations operating in South Sudan that have security restrictions nearly as extreme as those I was working under in Somalia – and it’s understandable (though regrettable) that this sort of arrangement tends to breed suspicion and insecurity among those who are operating beneath it. In Somalia – there is no point of comparison, no organisation (as far as I’m aware) with foreign staff that has arrangements more relaxed than secure, guarded compounds, armoured cars, armed guards and extremely restricted movements. Two weeks ago, in Juba, I was wearing a summer dress and sandals, commuting to work on the back of a motorbike taxi, while Japanese peacekeepers in tanks, helmets and bullet-proof vests were going the other way; this week, in Mogadishu, I was the one in a bullet-proof vest, the first time I’ve ever had to wear one outside of training.

It’s hard to know what to make of the contrast, particularly on arriving back in Nairobi, breathing a sigh of relief at being back in a secure environment, and then a bomb killing ten and injuring more than 70 going off within an hour. I feel for the Somalis like those on my flight, though – they’re not going to have an easy time of it in Kenya over the next few weeks.

Written by Jess

May 16, 2014 at 7:07 pm

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Mogadishu. Beautiful cloudscapes, bombed out buildings, heavy clouds hurrying in from the sea, lots of interesting-looking buildings frustratingly glimpsed through tinted windows in an armoured car. I have rather taken to the place.

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Meanwhile, however, awful news out of the Central African Republic about the death of Camille Lepage. Camille was tough and smart and kind and funny, incredibly talented and incredibly committed to the stories that she covered. The internet has been overflowing with articles and tributes since her body was found on Tuesday; it seems astoundingly unfair that her death had to bring about the recognition she deserved – and, perhaps, greater recognition of the conflict that she was covering.

Camille did outstanding and important work. Here is some of it.

Instagram / Photoshelter / the Huffington Post / the Washington Post / the New Yorker / the BBC / the New York Times.

Written by Jess

May 15, 2014 at 2:37 pm

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Reading ‘Resolution’ in Juba, and ‘The Eye of the Dragon’ in Nairobi

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The book: Resolution by Denise Mina (#3 in the Garnethill trilogy)

The place: Juba International Airport, sat on the floor by the toilets because there were no seats. Juba International Airport is quite literally* the Worst Place In The World, and it is always sadistically entertaining to watch people turn up there for the first time and look around in wide-eyed horror. Don’t worry chaps, it gets better from here! And then worse again.

*Not really literally


The book: The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

The place: Fairview Hotel, Nairobi. From the ridiculous to the sublime. I have had the privilege of staying in the Fairview since Thursday and will be here for another two nights, a longer stay than expected due to contract delays. Normally I wouldn’t stay anywhere this swanky but I was with colleagues who always stay here and even now they’ve left I have evidently become institutionalised and will stay here forever. There is sushi on demand and macadamia cappuccinos and internet as swift as a gazelle outrunning a hyena and my room has a bathtub that I am currently using at least twice a day. It is pretty wonderful.

I remain unconvinced by Nairobi, despite spending more time here over the past two weeks than ever before in my life. Its appeal is enhanced by having quite a lot of my friends in it; it’s also pleasingly green and pleasingly cool (in comparison to Juba, at least) and last night there was a wonderfully dramatic downpour that brought the flying ants out in force, frothing around any and every light source in a way that was oddly attractive from a distance (less attractive when they dive-bomb your beer). On the other hand, it’s impossible to get around without a car (well, presumably it is actually possible but I have never worked out how, except once in the company of a South Sudanese friend who whisked me into and out of matatus), it’s expensive (though not in comparison to Juba) and it takes a million years to get anywhere. More troublingly it doesn’t feel like it has a centre, just a series of ring roads and bypasses, interspersed with surprise forests (which are lovely) and surprise shopping malls (less so). Favourite places identified so far: the Fairview (obviously); Karen Blixen’s Coffee Garden (where I was lucky enough to attend a wedding on Friday); a two-storey old colonial bar downtown where I met a Sudanese friend for a drink two years ago, and which I could probably never find again. I will add to this list.

I have been reading a lot of genre fiction lately, no? This has been a gradual shift for me over the past few years – even five years ago I rarely read any genre fiction at all. Then in 2011 friends put me onto Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, after years of avoiding sci-fi because I thought it was all spaceships and lightsabres – which acted as a gateway drug for The Kind Of Sci-fi I Like, and then last year Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books did the same for detective fiction (oh, Arkady Renko, my wonderful melancholy imaginary Russian detective boyfriend). I don’t tend to read genre fiction qua genre fiction – I probably wouldn’t pick up a detective story because it’s a detective story, if you see what I mean, and I read genre fiction for pretty much the same reasons I read any other kind of fiction: broadly, 1. Characterisation, 2. Setting, 3. Plot; with Very Very Good Writing acting as a cross-cutting aspect of appeal – but man, literature snobs who avoid genre fiction because they don’t think any of that can exist within it are missing out on a lot of wonderful writing.

I was a vile little intellectual snob as a teenager, but I’ve become less and less of one as I’ve got older, and more and more irritated by others.** I was particularly annoyed by Colin McCann’s assertion last year that of course TransAtlantic isn’t historical fiction (frantic disclaimer: I am sure Colin McCann is a very nice chap! I am sure TransAtlantic is a very good book! I even have it on my Kindle but haven’t read it yet!). Is it fiction? Yes. Is it set in the past? Yes. THEN IT IS HISTORICAL FICTION. That is the actual, literal definition. To try and abjure that on the basis that genre fiction is essentially lesser and of course We Writers are all aspiring to the lofty and nebulous heights of literary fiction is specious. Embrace (good) genre fiction, I say.

**To be fair, I’ve become more and more irritated by a lot of things.

Written by Jess

May 11, 2014 at 7:18 pm

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Reading ‘Exile’ in Juba

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The book: Exile (#2 in the Garnethill Trilogy), Denise Mina

The place: Juba, South Sudan

Yet another example of book / place mismatch. Given that I actually (nominally) live in Glasgow, it is odd that I read the first book in the trilogy in Cairo last year and the second in Juba now. On the other hand, reading books set in Glasgow while outside of Glasgow gives me a pleasant form of homesickness (which is also odd, given that the picture that Mina paints of Glasgow is not particularly flattering).

There is always a particular doubling effect that occurs when in South Sudan, given the relative comfort of the expat life one can access in Juba, compared to the dereliction of the rest of the country. This is even more intense at the moment, given that the country is actually having a war that is all-but-imperceptible from the capital. We are constantly refreshing online news sources (Radio Tamazuj) to get information about which towns have changed hands; there are horrendous stories from South Sudanese friends and colleagues about what’s going on in Bentiu or Malakal or Bor. And at the same time, here we are in perfectly pleasant Juba, where we can drink beer and eat steak cordon bleu* and sit by the Nile in the sunshine and swim in pools. Talking to a friend of a friend yesterday, who is a nurse in Juba Military Hospital, sewing up holes in the bodies of soldiers that are helicoptered back from the Front, it is very hard to square one image with the other.

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*Beef stuffed with cheese and bacon, served with mashed potato. Perhaps my palate is not so sophisticated, but it is hard to imagine a better foodstuff.

Written by Jess

May 4, 2014 at 8:25 pm

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