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History, Culture, Traditions and the Arts

The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles

I feel a bit like Hermione Granger scurrying along the shifting staircases of Hogwarts as I duck in and out of the labyrinth. I’m in a bookstore, looking for books I may never find. Accustomed to linear shelves where each tome logically follows the next, I lurch along rows that loop and snake intricately along the…

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When Art Takes Over: The Case of Nantes, France

What do you do when people consider your city dull, boring and grey – and won’t visit? You try something different because you know, deep inside, that your home (in this case Nantes, France) is anything but non-descript. You just have to bring out its beauty. Nantes did this with a single word: art. “We decided to develop…

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Once Upon a Time with Queen Victoria in Aix-les-Bains

She may not have been the first, but Queen Victoria’s presence in the French alpine town of Aix-les-Bains is probably among the best-known and most fondly remembered. Bluntly said, she put Aix (as it’s known by those on a first-name basis with the city) on the map. In the latter years of the 19th century, you couldn’t walk a…

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Djemaa El Fna, Marrakech: A Sensual Attack

My first evening was the worst. Like a slap in the face, leaving me bruised and winded, not knowing where to look. The central square of Marrakech, Djemaa El Fna, shocked me physically, its enormity making me feel as though I had dived into a whirlpool, pulled apart and assaulted from all sides by motion and smell, by bright,…

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Meet Mr Mohammed from Mhamid, Morocco

The dust sprinkling the streets of M’hamid Elghizlan, as Mhamid is formally called, comes from the desert’s edge a few minutes away, where the Saharan wind and sand eat into what was once a thriving crossroads along the salt caravan routes to Timbuktu. Against a red brick wall, a former shop door opening is partially…

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Modern-Day Nomads in Morocco: From Tent to Cave

The ceiling is low, so low I crouch to enter. The walls are rock, the ground packed earth, covered with a homemade throw rug. A few plastic bags carry the family’s possessions, bunched in the corner of what turns out to be their ‘living’ room. Mohammed Ouhmou kneels as he pours thick mint tea, once,…

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The Rungus Gongs of Sabah: Keeping a Tradition Alive

When Rohanah Kudat got married more than a dozen years ago, the last thing she expected was to become a custodian of an ancient craft. Her husband, a gong-maker, taught her the skills and today, Rohanah is one of ten women who make their living hammering zinc sheets into round, vibrant shapes 11 hours a…

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Chinese New Year in Singapore, circa 1999

As I watch this year’s preparations for Chinese New Year, I clearly remember my own Chinese New Year. It was 1999, I was in Singapore, and my friend Soh-Koon had invited me to spend the holiday with her family. I had visited before, hiding in an air-conditioned hotel to escape the stifling equatorial heat. Everything…

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Really Seeing Brooklyn’s Red Hook

When photographer Sheila Archer offered to take me around Red Hook for half a day, I had to ask where it was. I’d never heard of this quirky industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn (in truth, I’d never been to Brooklyn other than by accident, heading the wrong way on the subway the day before). On a…

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