I’ve been mulling this over since last Thursday (21st) as I’ve been struggling to work out how I really feel about the whole situation. For anyone who isn’t aware, Lana Del Rey issued a written post via Instagram last week on the subject of her struggles in the music industry, followed by another statement, followed by a 6-minute long video, all of which caused quite a bit of controversy across social media platforms. Anyone who knows me will be aware than I am a huge fan of Lana Del Rey’s music and have been since she first emerged with Video Games and the Born to Die album in 2011. There was no one else like her on the scene and I immediately became captivated by her dreamlike melodies and deeply related to so many of the songs. Every album has been there for me through both happy and troubling times over the past decade, and I fell in love with the melancholia in her voice and brutal honesty of her lyrics. There is no denying that she is a fantastic and still under appreciated singer, songwriter and poet, but I understand that her music is not for everyone and may seem slow and boring to many. Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a masterpiece and should have won the Grammy this year, but then so should Lemonade in 2017 and Beyoncé in 2015.
I fell in love with the character “Lana Del Rey”, which on Thursday I was forced to admit was an illusion. In my head I had never really separated the persona of Lana Del Rey from the real life person Elizabeth Woolridge Grant. This was down to my own naivety, because to me the person and the character were completely combined and the image I held of Lana was one of grace, humility and of being completely unproblematic. I read her statement on Instagram four minutes after it was posted, and immediately I knew that this would be a long day, and that things would never be quite the same again.
As a man, it is not my place to comment on the struggle of a woman in the industry. I know that every woman in music has had to go through unspeakable hardships and has fought their own uniquely difficult fight to get to where they are now, in a way that men could never fully understand. I do not underestimate the struggle that Lana herself has been through over the past ten, fifteen years. I do not dispute her main point of addressing that there needs to be more fragility within feminism, and I will hold my hands up and say that this isn’t something I know much about. I do think that we have a problem with femininity and fragility being perceived negatively in both men and women, and that toxic masculinity is the root cause of this.
As a white person, it is not my place to comment on allegations of racism. I cannot sit here and say “Lana isn’t racist”, because how can any of us actually know what someone is really thinking? I cannot go round saying that something “isn’t racist” because my lived experience and therefore my interpretation will be completely different to that of a black person. I do not have to constantly deal with being racially profiled, and I can probably count on my hand the number of times I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable about being white. I do not believe that Lana is inherently racist, but it’s clear that her statement, and the very act of making the statement, is steeped in white privilege and this is something that should be addressed. To openly complain and to act with entitlement is white privilege, as we’ve seen with the rising anti-Karen movement and the recent case of Amy Cooper calling the cops on an innocent black man who politely asked her to put her dog on a lead in Central Park. I don’t think Lana has properly addressed her privilege or dealt with the accusations of racism very well at all. I’ve noticed that when white people are accused of racism, our instinct is to immediately deny rather than question. As white people our role should not be to deny. The more we ask questions, recognise privilege where it appears and try to understand the lived experience of black people, the easier things will hopefully become for everyone. Equality will not be reached if white people don’t start to open their eyes, and the way Lana has handled this situation from the start has made me cringe. She should never have compared her struggle to that of the other artists, period.
On Thursday morning I saw the person I had idolised for years be completely annihilated by stan Twitter within the space of a few hours. The elegant persona of “Lana Del Rey” was dashed aside and replaced by the angry, flawed, passionate Lizzy Grant, chewed up and spat out at an alarming rate and branded as “fake”, “boring”, and “irrelevant”. Watching this unfold throughout the day was heartbreaking, and I had no idea how to react. Stan Twitter operates militantly, so the fact that Lana had riled not one but seven armies made defending her virtually impossible for her relatively quiet fanbase. I spent the whole day reading tweets, agreeing with a lot of what was said, and struggling not to take certain comments personally. When an artist is “cancelled”, I get the impression that their fans are tarnished with the same brush and essentially “cancelled” too. Make no mistake, stan Twitter is a destructive and toxic environment, stifling individuality and heavily focused on mass generalisation. I have felt awkward all week and unsure of whether or not to carry on supporting Lana, because I know that by publicly supporting an artist there is an assumption that you agree with every single thing they say and what they stand for.
Lana’s fans are typically dreamers, often dealing with depression, trying to make the best of life but struggling with mistakes along the way. None of us asked for this. I spent a few days angry with her for shattering the illusion. How dare she ruin the cosy state of calm I get from listening to her music? Who is this new supposed “badass” cringingly telling people to #fuckoff left right and centre? The illusion of “Lana Del Rey” I had fallen for a decade ago was graceful, glassy-eyed and majestic, unbothered by everyday life and part of some never-ending dream. When I watched her six-minute IGTV, I saw a vulnerable person, no big hair or dark makeup, close to tears and clearly damaged by the comments but pretending not to be. Lockdown has caused people to stop, reassess and think deeply, with mental health issues often being the result. I guess it was only a matter of time before the persona of Lana Del Rey cracked and the real life, imperfect Lizzy Grant emerged.
Heartbreak is the shattering of an illusion, and this was my fourth in eight months, so I took it a lot better than I probably would’ve done a year ago. If there’s anything this year has taught me, it’s that we are surrounded by illusions. A seemingly healthy relationship is often just an illusion. The idea that someone will be around forever is an illusion. The idea that society could carry on the way it was going without a global pandemic breaking out was an illusion. I haven’t listened to any of Lana’s music since Thursday because of this shattered illusion. The dream, or the way things were before, is over forever. I know I’ll continue to follow her work and always wish her well, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel as closely connected or could call myself a “stan”, because I’m opposed to the way she’s dealt with a lot of issues this past week. For me personally, it is time to wake up from the dream.
48 hours in Amsterdam with no social media • First trip post-Brexit and final trip pre-COVID • The best coffee shops, where to stay and where to eat.
A racist holiday that has gone on for too long.Time to expose and eradicate.
The Weeknd’s AfterHours. An introspective album of guilt and remorse released in the midst of a global pandemic.
For me, Amsterdam is a city of escape. At just a 50-minute flight across the North Sea from London, it is more accessible than many locations within the UK. I am aware of the privilege I have living in Europe and being able to visit such a huge variety of different places in under three hours. Having that privilege suddenly taken away in light of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a surreal experience to say the least, and I will appreciate my freedom to roam in a new way once all this is over. The Dutch capital, known as “the Venice of the North” is one of the few places I could return to time and again without getting bored. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been, but each visit is a relaxed informal getaway from normal life and serves as a mental reset. For a few days away with friends, Amsterdam has everything you could need and there is nowhere else comparable in Europe. My latest trip was my first time there alone. At the start of March 2020, now an infamous month, I booked a spontaneous two nights at The Student Hotel in Amsterdam West. With both personal and work pressures building up, I knew that I had to get on a flight and disconnect. I’d decided to cut out social media for a while, and there was something comforting about going somewhere “under the radar” and not telling everyone about it or feeling pressured to show off what a great time I was having. At this stage the pandemic had yet to gain real traction in Europe outside Italy, making it the last time for a while I would take a flight trouble free. At Luton I treated myself to a pair of AirPods (my earphones were on the blink and there was no way I could do a solo trip without music) and for the entirety of the trip I became obsessed with After Hours, a promotional single from The Weeknd’s fourth studio album of the same name due to be released later in the month. Now listening to the album and thinking back on the trip as I write this, the restless urgency of his voice seems to tie in well with the feeling of uncertainty that stretched across the whole month.
Having first visited Amsterdam with a group of friends back in 2014, I am now a seasoned guest and feel completely at ease being there alone. That trip had been a chaotic expedition with a motley crew of students, inexperienced in coffeeshop culture and giggling hysterically at the liberal attitudes to sex on display throughout the city centre. A novice to marijuana consumption, I of course embarrassed myself and had to make a speedy exit from our first coffeeshop, crashing blindly into the outdoor seating at a restaurant in Leidseplein and needing to have a sit down for a good 15 minutes. Visits with my friends nowadays are a more organised affair. We know where to go, we know our limits, and we travel there for the enjoyment rather than the novelty. If you arrive by plane you will most likely take a short train ride from Schipol Airport to the ornate Amsterdam Centraal Station, a central hub from which the rest of the city fans out in a series of canals. Arriving here ignites the same excitement as turning up at a theme park. The core of the city arose during the Dutch Golden Age of the 16th and 17th centuries when Amsterdam was lauded as one of the most influential places in Europe, with the Netherlands making great leaps in science, military and the arts. Its design makes it one of the greenest cities in the world today, with bikes, boats and trams being far more popular modes of transport than cars. This creates the unique “village atmosphere” which the Dutch are extremely proud of. To bewildered outsiders, the complex road systems can be daunting, but spend some time getting to grips with the rules and you will see how well everything has been carefully constructed to cater for cyclists, pedestrians and public transport.
You are never lost for things to do in Amsterdam, and the beauty of it is the wide range of interests it facilitates. The choice is always yours, and as a first-time visitor what you do depends on the type of day you wish to have and the people you’re with. Some spend a morning in the world famous Rijksmuseum followed by a brisk cycle round Vondelpark or a stroll through the stylish Jordaan disctrict to the Anne Frank House. Others will head straight to the Venustempel Sex Museum (if you don’t have a photo next to the two giant penises, did you even go to Amsterdam?), followed by a steady stream of Heineken in Rembrandtplein and a peruse of the infamous De Wallen red-light district. Many make a beeline for one of the iconic coffeeshops, where the purchase and consumption of cannabis is completelylegal, before exploring the canals and winding passageways in a state of euphoria and ending up at New York Pizza down Damstraat. My first visit there in 2014 was a healthy mix of all three, but now our trips tend to centre around the coffeeshops, restaurants, parks and espresso bars, avoiding the tourist traps and just relaxing, joking and laughing for a prolonged period of time. It wasn’t until 2018 when it fully hit me how great this city is, and how it’s the laid-back attitudes here that make it so favourable and easy-going compared with London.
With so much on offer, Amsterdam has an equally good choice of places to stay. For a quick getaway with friends, my recommendation is the fantastic ClinkNOORD hostel, located in Amsterdam Noord just a five-minute shuttle ferry across from Centraal Station. This free service runs constantly 24/7, shipping commuters and tourists back and forth across the River Ij which separates the city. As a pedestrian there is an unspoken rule to let the bikes disembark first, otherwise you risk being run over by a stampede of bemused locals. Housed in an old laboratory building, ClinkNOORD boasts dorm rooms and en suite privates, with a quadruple room normally costing between €40 – €50 pppn. I would describe the theme as “cosy prison vibes”, with modern, simplistic décor and the facilities kept to a noticeably high level of cleanliness. As well as a bar, restaurant and self-catering kitchen, there are several chill-out zones including a sheltered AstroTurf courtyard which holds regular morning yoga sessions, none of which I’ve ever woken up in time to go to. On this solo trip I decided to try somewhere new, and booked myself two nights at The Student Hotel in Amsterdam West. Accessible via the metro and tram stops at Jan van Galenstraat just a 20-minute journey from the centre, this trendy new chain centres itself around the idea of bringing together work and play. There is a bar, a pool table and a TV area as you would expect from a hostel, but it also boasts meeting rooms and work spaces, making it an ideal creative retreat for young people. Other perks include self-check-in, super friendly staff and the fastest WiFi I have ever experienced in a hotel. For solo or couple travellers who wish to combine work with relaxation this is the perfect setting, and I’m looking forward to eventually checking out their other branches in Berlin, Paris and Florence once I’m allowed to leave the country again.
The timing of my visit fell just before the pandemic in Europe really started to escalate outside of Italy. A few plane passengers were wearing masks and paranoia was high, but shops were open and it was still deemed acceptable to be travelling abroad. Looking back, it seems strange to think that even then the virus didn’t feel like my problem. I was following all the guidelines but the real gravity of the situation didn’t fully hit until a few weeks later when precautions were ramped up in the UK. Now stuck at home writing this, I can’t believe how wrapped up in my own issues I was and how naïve I’d been not to predict what was about to happen. My main preoccupation at that point was the fact that this would be my first holiday since around 2009 that didn’t involve sharing everything on social media. Stepping off the plane knowing this was my trip to enjoy alone was a strangely exhilarating feeling. Following the direction of a few hastily-applied Union Jacks towards border control, I was also reminded that this was my first post-Brexit trip to the EU.
It was evening when I arrived, so after a speedy check-in and a quick refresh at the hotel, I took the No. 13 tram and headed straight for my favourite coffeeshop, the deliciously psychedelic Original Dampkring. This iconic institution is tucked away on Handboogstraat, bizarrely located in the main shopping district not far from the Flower Market. Entering Dampkring is like stepping out of a time machine into the 70s and diving straight into a lava lamp. I’m not someone who would typically use the word “funky”, but that’s the only way to describe the vibrant décor and permanently tranquil mood of the place. You can spend hours in this time capsule and forget about the outside world until you emerge blinking back onto the street. Expect a warm welcome from Bowie, their resident cat, and friendly, knowledgeable service from behind the well-stocked counter. The staff will help you choose from a wide range of sativa, indica and hashish depending on the experience you wish to have, and you can opt for either a bag or a pre-rolled joint. If you’re with a group, I’d recommend splitting a bag (you will save money and the ritual of rolling is part of the fun) but for a solo visit I prefer to avoid the faff and pick up a pre-roll for €7.50. As with all Amsterdam coffeeshops it is customary to buy a soft drink while you smoke – I tend to opt for a fresh mint tea. With Dampkring being so popular, be prepared to wait around by the bar before a table becomes free, and it’s worth knowing that hats are banned, so leave your fedoras at home. For a more modern coffeeshop that doesn’t care about hats and plays mainly hip-hop/R&B, catering to a generally younger crowd, head to Coffeeshop New Times on Spuistraat. I would say the theme here is “intergalactic” and its whole outlook is a refreshing new direction away from places like the Bulldog chain (the Wetherspoons of coffeeshops) and any of the tourist traps around Rembrandtplein. If you’re new to Amsterdam and want to avoid rowdy stag-dos, giggly first-timers and being ripped off, then New Times is your go-to. I’ve been a few times now, but it was a welcome surprise to stumble across it again during my most recent visit. As the weather was fine I sat in their outdoor seating area to get some fresh air, feeling a complete sense of calm, released from the compulsion to check the socials and just enjoying being where I was in my own company. It still hadn’t clicked that this would be one of the last moments in a while that I had the freedom to sit around in public without a purpose.
I personally prefer to wander and sightsee as I go, pretending to be a local and dipping into espresso bars and galleries that I happen upon, discovering new corners of the city’s canals every time. On our visit in 2018 my friend and I discovered Bocca Coffee Roasters, a wonderfully pretentious hipster coffee place with a 10/10 aesthetic (we’re talking cool grey furnishings and intermittent palm plants). Brunch at Coffee & Coconuts is also a must, this laid-back Pacific themed café set in an old theatre serves a wide range of coffees, fresh juices and Instagrammable eggs – but expect to wait a while for a seat. For rainy days, head to the Foodhallen in Kinkerbuurt for a worldwide selection of typically overpriced but tasty street food, followed by a movie at the adjacent Filmhallen. The best time to visit Amsterdam is spring, and hiring bikes to explore the city before whizzing under the arches of the Rijksmuseum and ending up in Vondelpark will always be a joyous experience. If you prefer a more carefully coordinated day out, I would recommend purchasing an “I amsterdam” City Card. I’m not sure why the tourist board decided to call itself “I amsterdam”, but it does a good job of promoting the city, with larger than life “I amsterdam” lettering in place outside the Rijksmuseum which everyone flocks to for photos, and “I amsterdam” keyrings for sale left right and centre. At €85 for 48 hours, the City Card includes access to over 70 museums and attractions including the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum and the NEMO Science Museum, as well as all public transport, bike rental and even a 1-hour canal cruise.
I don’t know any other European city which offers so much to tourists at such a great price, and in general when it comes to getting it right, the Dutch seem to do a much better job than the British, from the functionality of its public transport system to the pristine appearance of its Albert Heijn supermarkets. Their biggest setback, of course, is a blatantly racist holiday custom which involves the laughably dated act of donning blackface to dress up as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a Moorish companion of Saint Nicholas. As with foxhunting in the UK, bullfighting in Spain, or the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, something being “tradition” does not make it acceptable, and the fact that a large number of white people in the Netherlands are still embarrassing themselves by blacking up with painted lips and curly black wigs every Christmas is pretty astounding. This offensive ritual has been around since the 1800s, and partakers still insist it is harmless fun that children look forward to every Christmas. That may be the case, but we are now in the 21st century and based off the evidence, there is absolutely no doubt that this custom carries a deeply racist element at its core. Children are adaptable and there are plenty of other things to look forward to during the holidays, so let’s face it, this is about the adults not the kids.
Like most cities in Western Europe, Amsterdam is proudly multicultural, so I dread to think what it must be like for Dutch people of colour having to live through this every year. In November 2019, an article from Al Jazeera caught the eye of Kim Kardashian and was tweeted out to her 64.5 million followers, further fuelling the debate internationally. It seems baffling that we even need to be having this conversation in 2020, but, as with all cases of institutional racism, the problem is allowed to continue because not enough white people are vocal about it. What’s important now is that more people around the world are aware of what goes on, and that black people living in the Netherlands do not continue to feel their voices are unheard. Protests are growing year by year across the country, but these are met with intense counter-protesters who have been known to retaliate by throwing bananas and eggs, and even in some cases displaying Hitler salutes. Rather than reacting with hushed disapproval as is customary amongst white people, action needs to be taken. As long as the fight stays within the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet-ers are getting away with it, so the quickest way this can change is international pressure. The best thing we can do now is like the page Zwarte Piet is Racisme on Facebook, keeping an eye out for updates on petitions and sharing posts as much as possible before the holiday season starts in November. You can also write to the Dutch embassy in your country. There is a vein of racism that still runs deep throughout Europe, and the only way we can erase it is by speaking out.
I’m used to strolling around in a group, but walking alone at night through the streets of Amsterdam is a different experience. With so many narrow passageways and canal towpaths, I became distinctly more aware of safety, knowing that certain people would be alert and ready for anyone who looks a bit too drunk or stoned. There was also an inescapable feeling of unease based around the rapidly developing coronavirus, and the restless falsetto of The Weeknd naturally fell into place as an underlying soundtrack for my trip. This elusive Canadian singer, real name Abel Tesfaye, rarely gives interviews or emits much about his personal life, choosing instead to express himself through his music. He has risen in fame throughout the 10s to become one of the most recognisable voices in R&B, pop and hip-hop. I’m not sure when I first became aware of The Weeknd… probably around the time of his 2012 feature on Drake’s Crew Love, but it wasn’t until I heard his vocals on Kavinsky’s Odd Look around 2014 that I became a fan, and Beauty Behind the Madness ended up being one of my top albums of 2015. I still haven’t listened to his 2012 compilation album Trilogy, mainly in protest against all the people who got in there first and then harped on about how nothing he’s produced since is comparable. In reality, Abel Tesfaye’s growth and evolution over the years has made him one of the most compelling artists of modern times. In 2016 he lost his trademark dreads and released Starboy, enlisting the support of Daft Punk to bring out a more upbeat, electronic sounding album than before. Four years later and Tesfaye is older, wiser and slightly more twisted, unveiling a psychotic alter ego as the central focus to his fourth studio album, After Hours.
Following the breakup of two high-profile relationships since his last album – Selena Gomez in 2017 and then model Bella Hadid in 2019 – his remorse is now laid bare. In the video for the first single, Heartless, we see him wearing shades and suited up in red at a Las Vegas casino as he throws away money and gets steadily off his face. The first line “never need a bitch, I’m what a bitch needs” sets precedence for the rest of the album as he delves introspectively into his own fame, the impact this has on his personality and the way he treats those close to him. Escaping the casino, he runs rogue around Sin City, becoming more intoxicated and psychedelically tripping out as he sings the stripped back bridge “I lost my heart and my mind, I tried to always do right” before finding himself alone. The more material he released in the run-up to the album dropping, the more it became clear that this project was not a series of disconnected songs. Each single and its video fell into a cohesive narrative, giving the whole of After Hours a filmic quality and blurring the lines between music and cinema. The Weeknd is no stranger to this kind of storytelling – his deliciously violent video for 2016’s False Alarm is more exciting than half the movies on Netflix, and was perhaps a precursor to this new project. In the video for Blinding Lights we join him later on that same night in Vegas, now with blood around his mouth and an even more deranged look in his eyes as he continues to cause havoc in pursuit of his love interest. Tesfaye is showing us a side of him that we haven’t seen before – his struggle in dealing with his own success. The alter ego we see in the videos represents the points at which he is driven to insanity by money, fame and drugs, and the content in most of the songs is filled with angst at how much this damages his relationships. As the videos are released we are given more insight into his world of guilt and regret. While Blinding Lights, Heartless and In Your Eyes have become global hits, I would say the album tracks to listen out for are Scared to Live, Faith and Until I Bleed Out. My standout track will always be After Hours (the song) which was released as a promotional single and built my anticipation for the album while I was in Amsterdam. It quickly became my go-to for strolling round the city alone, the restless urgency of his voice befitting the general uncertainty at the time of my visit. At a satisfying six minutes long, this track is a brooding recollection of his failed relationships, his usual wistful falsetto paired with a sinister electro beat, the crux of which is an exhilarating drop after the first verse. Amsterdam 2020 was strictly speaking a working visit, but at times could have been described as a three-day bender. Listening to After Hours I couldn’t help but relate to The Weeknd’s debauchery in Las Vegas, because sometimes life really can drive you crazy.
The Weeknd is brave enough to explore the depths of his own psychosis, so it’s a bizarre coincidence that After Hours has been released in the midst of a global pandemic, with most of us forced to remain indoors in a state of extreme paranoia, left to grapple with our own levels of insanity. Blinding Lights, a megahit which has been on and off the No. 1 spot in the UK Singles Chart since February, is now enjoying extended success owing to its popularity on TikTok, with quarantined families and groups around the world losing their inhibitions to partake in the highly energetic #BlindingLightsChallenge. In the current climate of social distancing it’s impossible not to draw parallels with the line “the city’s cold and empty, no one’s around to judge me” which also cropped up a lot during Amsterdam. A month later, I’m pushing a trolley through an unsettlingly crowded Asda with Blinding Lights blaring through the Tannoy as I frantically look for flour and try not to get within two metres of anyone else. In years to come I think we might look back on this song as an underlying soundtrack to the COVID-19 crisis, it’s frantic beat and frenzied lyrics seeming to tie in naturally to the general feeling of doubt and anxiety that has taken hold. Now aged 30, The Weeknd is sounding more mature than ever, openly acknowledging his own setbacks and culpability for the collapse of his relationships. The production is slick and the ominous resonance in many of the songs pulls it away from the more conventional sounding Starboy and back towards his edgier routes. You can tell Abel Tesfaye is enjoying this album release, comfortable in his own artistic decisions and ability to tell a story through his music. Where The Weeknd goes from here during these troubled times is yet to be seen – his evolution as an artist is what makes him so fascinating.
November 2018 was a wild one. I’d handed in my notice and with an end date set for the 15th, the only plan was a move to London, with no job lined up and nowhere to live. Thinking back, I can’t believe I was so reckless, and it’s not something I would repeat, but at the time it was the right decision to make. Some might think of me as a quitter who couldn’t handle the intensity of a high-pressured job, but no one can understand the acute level of stress I was under in this particular role, the constant frustrations I was dealing with and the deep depression that this caused. As a free man, and feeling spontaneous with no commitments and a general ethos of “no fucks given”, I booked a very last minute flight to Budapest with a good friend. In the final weeks of work, I put so much focus into tying things over ready to leave that I didn’t even stop to consider the sudden emotion I would feel saying goodbye to all my colleagues and changing lifestyles completely.
This was my second visit to Hungary’s great capital, having stayed here three years previously on an Interrail jaunt around Central Europe with my brother. That had been in the hazy height of summer, whereas this time the air was filled with a permanent autumnal drizzle and the first notions of festive fun were starting to set in. Unified in 1873, the city originally constituted the individual towns of Buda and Pest which sat on either side of the Danube river. World War II saw Hungary fall under Nazi rule, followed by a forty-year socialist regime heavily influenced by the Soviet Union before democracy was eventually reinstated in 1989. We stayed in a newly-refurbished Airbnb within a block of apartments on the Buda side of the city which we got for a very decent price. If you’re looking to go on a city break somewhere spectacular yet also affordable, then Budapest is one of your best options in Europe. From the grandeur of its castles and palaces, to the buzz around its world-renowned thermal spas and the vibrancy of its bars and restaurants, you will never not be entertained here.
Tramlines connect the city.
80s sci-fi vibes @ Déli Pályaudvar.
Your best way to get around locally is via tram, and for longer distance journeys there is an excellent metro system which connects the city. The very reasonable 72-hour travel pass allows unlimited journeys on all public transport and costs just 4150 Ft (£10.56). On our first day we headed to our nearest station, the once-futuristic Déli Pályaudvar, which looks like the set of an 80s sci-fi movie, and took the tram down to Gellért Spa. Ranked highly across the board as one of the top spas in Budapest, Gellért boasts stunning art nouveau interiors of rich green, with plenty of pools at varying temperatures reaching as high as 40°C. There is also a heated outdoor pool with sauna and an ice cold plunge pool, which I dramatically subjected myself to, to the great amusement of some elderly locals. A weekday pass at Gellért Spa with locker is 6600 Ft. (£16.55) with cabins also available and treatments at varying prices. For the most impressive and luxurious indoor spa experience I would recommend Gellért, but if you’re looking for a large outdoor thermal pool with a great atmosphere, it has to be the iconic Széchenyi Baths. There is nowhere quite like Széchenyi, arguably the go-to place in Budapest, and probably the one you’ve seen plastered all over everyones Instagram (guilty!). When I came here in 2015 it was a baking hot day and the place had a summer holiday vibe but now, on a chilly night at the backend of November, steam rose up from the pools (which glow blue, red and green with underwater lighting) and you had to dash in and out of the water to avoid contracting pneumonia. There are kiosks where you can buy alcohol, and I am told that they regularly host party nights and summer blowouts. A visit to Széchenyi could easily be the highlight of your trip to Budapest, and I can’t wait to return when I finally get round to organising my tickets for the renowned Sziget Festival. A weekday pass at Széchenyi Baths is 6200 Ft. (£15.55) with cabins also available and treatments at varying prices.
Sumptuous settings at Gellért Spa.
The unmissable Széchenyi at night.
The crossing point at Liberty Bridge.
Even though the city is so well connected, I would still highly recommend taking in as much on foot as you can. After a relaxing afternoon at Gellért, you can stroll across the ornate Liberty Bridge and then take a 20-minute walk alongside the Danube until you reach the buzzing District V area. This is where you will find the best shops and restaurants, as well as the marvellous St Stephen’s Basilica and the Great Synagogue on Dohány út. (the largest synagogue in Europe which was sadly being renovated during our visit). For bars and nightlife, head to the booming Goszdu Passage, a narrow pedestrianised walkway with an endless choice of tastefully-lit courtyards in which to enjoy a pint of Borsodi, a glass of Tokaj or even a cheeky pálinka if you’re feeling adventurous. Budapest’s wide leafy avenues are reminiscent of London (right down to the fact they have Tesco) and I could never get bored of window shopping up and down Andrássy út. If you want to try Hungarian food but are unsure of what to pick, a good place to start is the bustling Trófea Grill on Király út. This swanky buffet-style restaurant has a huge range of Hungarian and international cuisine at only 6999 Ft (£17.81) per person for all you can eat and drink, making it hard to avoid. Be careful with tipping in Hungarian forint on a card machine, because with the inflation rate being so high it’s scarily easy to get mixed up and accidentally tip £400 instead of £4 – a mistake I was adamant I had made until I checked my balance and was able to breathe again.
A drink or two down Gozsdu.
Hustle, bustle and festive fun in District V.
Not far from District V you will find the Országház in Kossuth Square, Hungary’s largest building which holds its parliament and is unmissable from the Danube, especially when lit up at night. In the square, where two unsmiling soldiers patrol in a circle around a large flagpole, you can visit an exhibition based on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, focusing specifically on the Kossuth Square Massacre, known as Bloody Thursday, which took place here on 25th October. It is unclear how many people were killed, but some estimates say as many as 1000 protesters were gunned down by around 22 Soviet-backed officials. The Hungarian political climate today is far from settled with right-wing nationalism fast on the rise and the hugely popular prime minister Viktor Orbán running frequent scare campaigns against immigrants. Basic democratic freedoms seem to be slipping away – families with more than two children are rewarded with large pay-outs from the government, while the rest of the population suffers as a result. A Hungarian girl I met in a Marylebone smoking area described Budapest as being “lovely to visit but awful to live in”, and the sad truth is that more young people than ever are leaving Hungary for other European countries. Unfortunately, wherever you go in Europe the rise in far-right nationalism is worryingly prominent. Yes, Hungary is probably the worst-case scenario, but attitudes in right-wing Austria are strikingly similar and far-right parties in Spain, Italy and Germany have all gained traction in recent years. I don’t have the energy to discuss Brexit in depth today, but it’s clear to see how this ties in with the overarching swing to the right across Europe and the world. Commentators have described Orbán’s ruling as being akin to a dictatorship and with a growing number of young people angry over the current situation, I have a feeling this new decade could be a fairly tumultuous one for Hungary.
The opulent Országház.
During our few days exploring Budapest, I spent a lot of time contemplating my decision to leave my job and listening to Sam Smith’s second album The Thrill of it All, which had come out a year previously but I was only just getting into now. I see no issue with enjoying an album late, because sometimes you are just not in the right mind-set when it comes out. Rarely will I trust a review which is published on the week of release, because how can anyone expect to have a fully formed opinion in such a short space of time? Music is to be absorbed gradually, not slotted in for a brief listen on a busy Saturday ready to be slated nationally in the Sunday morning Observer. For instance, having been obsessed with Flower Boy, I didn’t instantly connect with Tyler the Creator’s Igor, but I know the moment will come when I properly take it in. In the dizzying, complicated weeks after quitting my job, The Thrill of it All seemed to slip into my musical canon quite naturally.
For some reason I am persistently told I look like Sam Smith, even though I do not see the resemblance at all. I used to be frustrated with the comparison, but have learnt to embrace it. Appearance is not the only similarity, because many of his songs are so deeply relatable to the point where it feels I could have written them myself. The Thrill of it All is an album of sadness, of the last bits of childish innocence being dashed, but also of great hope and progression. When something comes to an end there is always pain whatever it happens to be, whether it’s a job, a school era or something more personal like a relationship. Smith, alongside an ever-present pianist and gospel choir, manages to convey this sense of pain and loss very well. For me the standout track will always be Burning. Every lyric seems to relate directly with the depressive phases I have gone in and out of since leaving university and dealing with the realities of “adult life”. My personal experience of growing up over the past few years has centred on an increase in self-awareness and a gradual loss of innocence and childishness. As a naturally exuberant person, I have come to realise that this can sometimes lead to me seeking attention, making one too many jokes and becoming something of a liability. Likewise, on days where I feel withdrawn, people will still expect me to play the part of “the entertainer” which is impossible to do 24/7. Yes, I have a generally positive attitude and am very optimistic about the future, but Burning manages to exemplify the gnawing feelings of sadness I have battled over recent years.
The lead single, Too Good at Goodbyes, was the song I had on repeat for the few days after leaving my job. To quote Lana Del Rey’s excellent video for Ride, my “inner indecisiveness that was as wide and as wavering as the ocean” is probably what has always held me back from making closer connections in the workplace, particularly throughout 2017 and 2018, because at the back of my mind I never really wanted to be in the jobs I was doing and was always trying to think of a way out, rather than just living in the moment. This, along with a certain degree of internalised homophobia, is what stopped me from being my real self at work, in turn causing depression. During my last week on the job I was overwhelmed by the wave of support and appreciation from my colleagues, which made me regret not throwing more of myself into forming stronger relationships and even question whether I had made the right decision in leaving. This reluctance to form closer ties at work boils down to a fear of commitment, which of course has manifested itself in my personal life too. For this reason, I have never managed to engage in a long-term relationship, instead relying too much on close friends to emulate the role of a partner, which is fine to an extent but can eventually become oppressive and damaging. Too Good at Goodbyes for me represents the barriers I put up with new people, a pattern I have tried hard to break over the past year, and I now work in a role which makes it impossible not to just be myself.
Braving the outdoor pool at Gellért.
The other deeply relatable song on the album is Pray, in which Smith delves into his own spirituality, backed up by the voices of a gospel choir. In general, there seems to be an awful lot of discourse on religion: on growing up under religion, on challenging religion, on the bureaucracy of religion, on causing offence to particular religions etc., but I rarely come across the perspectives of a rising number of people who have grown up without faith. From the outside looking in, I will often count myself lucky to have been brought up with free thought, not being forced to listen to the words of any particular prophet and the ability to make my decisions based solely on this life rather than following the obsession with what might happen after death. In times of bereavement though, which is what I am going through as I write this, I imagine that the connection with faith and a belief in the existence of an afterlife make the whole process more bearable, more beautiful, less concrete. In Pray, Smith alludes to late nights deep in thought, where the idea of a greater, omniscient presence does occasionally drift into mind. Leaving school as a cocky 18-year-old atheist, the idea of believing in God seemed unfathomable, but the older I get the more I can acknowledge the necessity of faith for millions of people in giving reason to the unending pitfalls of life. Even without religion, I will always be in awe of the incredible places of worship around the world built painstakingly by human beings as a dedication to God, and will always feel at peace when I visit. My own beliefs are still being shaped but, for now, my view is that God represents the greater goodness that exists within all humanity, and it’s no coincidence that this has been defined as an omnipotent being by the many religions formed by humans over thousands of years. In times of great suffering or sadness, we naturally draw together and go in search of reasoning and, as Sam Smith says, “pray for a glimmer of hope”. Religion brings ritual to the stages of life. In living a life without religion or belief in an omniscient God, the immediate weeks following the death of a loved one can seem chaotic. Without faith, a belief in the greater goodness amongst humans becomes essential. The goodness of the person who has died lives on through the people they knew, and in turn this is imparted onto others. Pray draws on our most vulnerable moments in life, the points at which we are forced to go inwards and think spiritually, because to think objectively becomes too hard.
Foggy night alongside the Danube.
As well as listening in Budapest, The Thrill of it All has seen me through recent months and will always be a big album for me. When people laugh and tell me I look like Sam Smith I laugh along too, but with an underlying notion of sadness, because they are unaware that the similarities go deeper than just looks.
Shocked and gasping for air, I managed to open my eyes just as another large bucket of cold water was hurled over my head. Sitting on a wet tiled floor surrounded by an assortment of semi-naked men, I was in the middle of my hammam spa treatment on the third day of a last-minute October trip to Marrakech. This legendary Moroccan city has always been high on my list of places to visit, so having just turned 25 and with an urge to get away by myself, I booked four nights in a hostel and jetted off on my first solo trip and first ever visit to Africa. Stuck in a tedious two-hour wait at customs listening to white people moan about “not looking suspicious”, I drowned out the noise by playing Di mi nombre, the third single from Rosalía’s second studio album, El mal querer. The rapidly emerging Catalan star’s flamenco melodies and unique ethereal voice made it a go-to song for the rest of the trip. It was 1am by the time I finally made it out of the airport and was greeted with my name on one of those signs held up by an understandably grumpy driver. He seemed to cheer up as we chatted and drove along the wide highway that links Marrakech Menara Airport with the main city, and I voiced my excitement at being here for the first time. By the time we reached my hostel, the car could only just fit down the passageways which connect the historical centre of the city. I fell asleep pretty much straight away with very little idea of what I would rise to in the morning.
Located on the north side of the medina, the Rodamón Riad Marrakech is a bright modern hostel with a traditional Andalusian-style courtyard and pool as well as a roof terrace with views of the Atlas Mountains. Room types and prices vary from just £19 ($23) for a bed in one of the ground-floor dorms to around £80 ($99) for a superior queen room with en suite. Ever the adventurer, I opted for a dorm room and was pleasantly surprised with the overall cleanliness and general setup of the place. There is a breakfast room with a well-stocked buffet, and you’re welcome to take your food and eat it in the shady courtyard around the jade green plunge pool. Throughout my stay at Rodamón I enjoyed a relaxed atmosphere in a prime central location – the perfect place for families or groups of friends who want to stay within the medina rather than at one of the resort hotels. A friendly receptionist gave me a map and advised that I head towards Jemaa el-Fnaa, the grand market place which has been a focal point of trade between north and south for almost a millennium. He also told me not to agree to any guided tours.
Morning view of the Atlas Mountains from the Rodamón rooftop.
Stepping out into the street in daylight for the first time felt like stepping onto a film set, only because it was so far removed from what I’m used to and anything I had seen before. I’m very wary of overusing western tourist tropes describing “hustle and bustle” or “sights, sounds and smells” as if I’m narrating a 9pm documentary on BBC4, but walking the medina really is a sensory experience like no other. Almost immediately, I took a different turn to the one recommended but didn’t much care. I was more than happy winding my way through the souks in the vague direction of the main square instead of religiously following a set route. You can find pretty much anything in Marrakech’s array of souks. The narrow streets are lined with stalls selling an abundance of riches, and for the whole trip I never tired of wandering and discovering new sections of this incredible place. Once you’ve finished admiring fine silks, exquisite jewellery, intricate carpets, silver teapots, ornate lanterns, spices, olives, dried fruits, cured meats and smoked fish, you can explore the craft sections and watch metalwork, fabric dyeing, carpet making or pottery taking place, then dive into a riad away from the crowds and sip on a fresh mint tea. Ok maybe I have slipped into the “gushing westerner” trap but it’s hard not to be in awe of the souks and their long history in Marrakech. After a morning of getting my bearings and acclimatising to the throng (you pretty much have to be on constant alert, with anything from motorbikes to donkeys trying to push past you), I took respite in the tranquil courtyard of Palais DONAB where I ate a colourful chicken and apricot tagine whilst making Instagram and Twitter aware of my whereabouts.
Hustle and bustle, vivid colours, etc. etc.
Diving back into the souk, I found myself in front of a clanging metalworks when a young man approached me to offer information. I was quite curt at first and told him I didn’t need a tour, but, introducing himself as Abdullah, he insisted he was not a tour guide and wouldn’t ask for money, he just wanted to tell me about the metalworks. One thing led to another and suddenly we were on a winding route through the souks towards a courtyard where fabric is dyed. Politely declining the offer of a pink pashmina, I then followed Abdullah back into the undercover section of the market with promise of visiting an apothecary. Torn between my crippling British politeness and my genuine interest in the places we were visiting, I couldn’t bring myself to just walk away. I decided to allow whatever was happening to happen, all the while knowing that this little jaunt probably wasn’t taking place out of the kindness of Abdullah’s heart. A voluptuous long-haired woman in a white lab coat was waiting to greet us at the apothecary. The woman, who incidentally looked like Rosalía, spent an extended period of time opening and closing jars while she took me through the various healing qualities in some of the hundreds of spices and concoctions before us. Abdullah waited out of sight whilst I enjoyed my 4D ASMR experience then reappeared as I emerged from the apothecary clutching a bag of nigella seeds with a newly instilled sense of calm. Next, onto the tannery which is away from the main souks on the east side of the medina. As this area is much quieter with hardly any shops and virtually no tourists, a sense of unease started to take hold. Outside the tannery we were greeted by a tall older man wearing a hooded djellaba – the traditional outer coat worn by the Berber people of the Atlas Mountains. He introduced himself as the manager of the tannery and handed me a sprig of mint “for the smell”, but unfortunately it didn’t quite do the trick in covering up the overpowering stench of ammonium chloride in the pigeon faeces used to bleach and tan leather. Spread out in front of us were an array of vats dug into the concrete, where two or three people stood soaking cow hides in the strong-smelling liquid. I was given a very brief overview about how the tannery works and then left to nervously stand around taking some subpar photos of the vats, before being led into a shop where I was met with hostility because I didn’t want to buy a brown leather jacket. Outside the shop, sure enough, Abdullah was waiting alongside the tannery manager. The jovial atmosphere seemed to have vanished as I was told I needed to pay the manager 200 dirham (£16.50) for showing me the tannery. I tried to protest at this price considering all I’d done was inhale ammonium chloride and avoid looking too closely at a pile of raw cow hides, but was met with anger at my “selfishness towards the Berber people”. After handing over the cash, Abdullah then demanded another 300 dirham for himself, even though throughout this whole affair he had insisted that it wasn’t about money and I had naively gone along with that notion. Deep down I had known all along that I was being scammed, but a small part of me had hoped that I’d made friends with a local who was just happy to show me round. After I argued the price down to 200 dirham, he snatched the money and stormed off, leaving me alone in this unfamiliar part of town.
Adrenaline running high, I set off walking in what I hoped was the right direction for the souks. The only people who seemed to be in this area were young men and older teenage boys who persistently tried to follow me telling me I was going in the wrong direction, that the street ahead was closed, that this area was “for Muslims only” and that they’d show me how to get out. I tried to ignore these calls and pretend that I wasn’t genuinely lost, but eventually a young man who seemed friendly enough promised to show me the way to Jemaa el-Fnaa and I gave in. Chatting and remaining calm, I followed him through a series of passageways until we were close to a main road. He gestured in the vague direction of the road and told me the square was “over there” (which turned out not to be true). He then demanded I pay him 200 dirham and suddenly we weren’t alone, as men appeared in the passageway both in front and behind me insisting that I hand over the money. Intimidated and annoyed at myself for being so gullible not once but twice, I handed over the cash and quickly got out of situation. Eventually I found refuge in the House of Photography and sat on its covered roof terrace with a mint tea as a thunderstorm rolled in, its loud claps coinciding with the sound of a nearby muezzin. Reflecting on the day’s events, I realised that to get by in this city you have to be resilient. The main trick is to walk with a purpose and not look lost, because the second you start scrabbling for a map, or your eyes display a hint of confusion, you will be approached from all angles with young men shouting “La Place?” “La Place?”. Yes, I got scammed out of 800 dirham on my first day in Morocco which isn’t a great track record, but I don’t particularly regret this because it hardened me up. These young lads are poor and have grown up into organised gangs through no fault of their own, so I felt embarrassment at my own foolishness rather than anger towards them; and if I’m honest, I was lowkey enjoying the drama of it all. For the rest of the trip, my tactic was to look any hustlers directly in the eye and say “Non merci, je ne suis pas perdu”, which seemed to do the trick.
Storm clouds over Jemaa al-Fnaa.
Although it’s known for its usually scorching temperatures, the weather in Morocco during my visit was unfortunately quite bad, with a large Atlantic storm passing over causing frequent thunder and heavy rain. I didn’t actually mind this too much and indeed one of my highlights was witnessing a dramatic thunderstorm as I walked across Jemaa el-Fnaa, feeling very much *hashtag living* as I watched lightning strike while people dashed for shelter. On the only forecasted day of sun, I took the opportunity to leave the medina and visit the highly recommended Jardin Marjorelle, a 2.5 acre walled botanical garden which was developed by the French artist Jacques Marjorelle over a period of nearly forty years starting in 1923. After falling to neglect it was then purchased and restored in the 1980s by the fashion designers Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé, and is now open to the public, housing the Berber Museum and the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, with the Musée Yves Saint-Laurent next door opening in 2017. As the queue for tickets took at least an hour, I would recommend purchasing in advance. Garden entry is 80 dirham (£6.45), while a combined ticket including all the museums is 200 dirham. The garden would have almost certainly felt like paradise if I hadn’t spent the whole time being jostled left, right and centre by Fjällräven Kånken bags and fully extended selfie sticks. Trying to imagine what the place must have been like as one of Monsieur Marjorelle’s guests in the 1930s, I wandered its leafy pathways and admired the vast array of tropical fauna on show. The jewel at the centre of the jardin is a distinctive cobalt blue villa, which Saint-Laurent and Bergé ended up living in together at one point, renaming it Villa Oasis – a name which probably sounded incredibly chic to them in the 80s but which today sounds like a timeshare in Sunny Beach. The building is stunning and now serves as an instagrammable goldmine, with tourists in their droves fighting for the best angle, the best lighting and the least crowded spot from which to take their pics. Rather than allowing myself to relax and enjoy being in this idyllic spot, my anxiety levels actually intensified as I joined the hordes in trying to secure the perfect photos with which to grace my feed and make everyone at home jealous. In fact, the only person who truly seemed at peace was a woman sitting in the shade facing away from the villa, engrossed in an oil painting of rich greens and blues. I know I’m very much part of the problem and to make this point will sound hypocritical, but it does seem sad that a tranquil garden like this has turned into a set for photoshoots rather than just being what it was intended for – a place of peace. I wondered how different my experience of Marjorelle would have been without a camera – would I have relaxed more and just enjoyed actually being there, or would the inability to carefully document my visit have made me even more anxious? Leaving the garden slightly frustrated, I found respite at the café bar outside Musée YSL, one of the most aesthetically pleasing places I have ever been. For a pretentious gay man like myself, the canary yellow furniture and turquoise ornamental pool were like a real-life dream next to the swaying palms and the earthy terra cotta brickwork of the museum building. I ordered a cloudy lemonade and sat facing the water, indulging in possibly my most wanky moment to date.
In all its glory – Villa Oasis is the focal point of Jardin Marjorelle.
A quiet corner away from the crowds.
Painfully pretentious – a moment of peace outside Musée YSL.
Much like Istanbul, Marrakech is famed for its hammam spa treatments which date back to Roman/Byzantine times and are prevalent across the Islamic world. Traditionally used for daily bathing and for performing ablutions before visiting the mosque, many hammams within the medina are now catered towards tourists and offer a wide range of water-based treatments and a variety of massages. With so many to choose from (La Mamounia and the Royal Mansour look stunning but come with an eye-watering pricelist) I decided I wanted more of a no frills option, a real hammam frequented by locals that I could just show up to without spending the whole time taking photos of mosaics and tagging the location on my story for once. Walking past the fish and meat stalls along Route Sidi Abdelaziz, I left the medina and found my way to Hammam Essalama, which is located to the east of the more modern Gueliz area. There is no need to book, you just arrive (men and women bathe in separate sections), pay 150 dirham (£12) and prepare for your treatment which takes around half an hour. The staff do not speak English but I got by with some very questionable French, and after getting changed into my trunks I was ushered into a white-tiled steam room and told to sit on the floor. I’ve visited many spas over the years and Essalama is definitely the most basic one I have been to. Forget fluffy white robes and ambient yoga playlists, this is about cleansing, rejuvenating and socialising without the nonsense. Men of all ages sat around chatting and glancing at me with mild amusement as the only bewildered tourist in the place. Someone pointed to a bucket of water and gestured that I was to wash myself with it. Eventually, after an awkward five minutes of splashing water on myself, a gruff old man came towards me with another bucket, a bar of soap and a scrubbing brush. I was instructed to lie face down on the tiles, where I closed my eyes and braced myself for whatever was about to happen. What ensued was a full body soaping, scrubbing, rinsing and pummelling on both sides, with the man showing no qualms about roughly pushing and prodding to make sure that every part of my body was free of muscle knots. I was next told to sit upright before having two large buckets of water unexpectedly thrown over my head, then handed a cup of mint tea as I sat against the wall and recovered. Obviously I take exfoliation as seriously as the next millennial man, but never had my skin felt quite so clean and smooth as it did now. Yes, lying on the wet tiles of a steam room floor may not compare with the luxuries of the Royal Mansour, but the staff at Hammam Essalama know exactly what they’re doing and follow routines that have been around for centuries, making it a Moroccan experience like no other.
Towelling off and exiting the hammam into heavy rain, I headed towards the main Gueliz area, taking shelter in an upscale supermarket where I deliberated over which paprika-flavoured crisps to buy as the rain subsided. Gueliz is a far cry from the narrow passageways of the medina and looks much like any modern neighbourhood in France or Spain. Up until this point my only view of Marrakech had been souks and riads, so I was a little taken aback by the sight of a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, a Zara and every other global brand which has engrained itself into every high street in the world. After a brief wander round a mall, I ended up having a coffee at the visually stunning but lowkey problematic Grand Café de la Poste. From its décor to its attitudes, this large French brasserie is steeped in colonial history and feels like stepping back in time to the 1920s. I was met with the typical snobbishness you might expect as a British person in Paris, and I couldn’t help noticing that the majority of the clientele were well-off, white and French. My main thought here was that if this were an English colonial-themed restaurant in India, I would feel uncomfortable showing my face. I’m not saying that Western colonial history should be ignored, but there is definitely something a bit off about an establishment which looks back with nostalgia at what was a pretty unpleasant era for many Moroccans. Taking a taxi back into the medina, I took a brief look around the ornate Dar Si Said museum before eating at Un Déjeuner á Marrakech, another French restaurant but this time one which actively incorporates Moroccan flavours and celebrates the cuisines of both countries. The service here was fantastic and the food (cream of carrot soup followed by Makfoul-style tagine beef) sublime.
The Rodamón at night.
Back at the hostel, my Mexican roommate shared some hashish with me which we smoked surreptitiously in an alleyway. Although cannabis remains illegal in Morocco, it is one of the world’s largest producers of the plant and there is a growing tourist trade around it, with farmers in the mountainous Rif region making a livelihood out of its cultivation. As with many other countries, its illegality is becoming somewhat of a grey area, with police often turning a blind eye to small instances of personal use. While various strains of marijuana (the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant) are more well-known in the UK, hashish (the resin of the plant) is what is commonly distributed in Morocco and surprisingly easy to obtain. With the plant now completely legal in Canada, Uruguay and eleven US states and laws loosening in several countries including Australia, Spain, South Africa, Portugal and the Netherlands, there is an ongoing discussion on its legalisation in the UK. It will certainly be interesting to see how global outlooks on cannabis change over the next decade as more research is done into its various health benefits, and what effect widespread regulation in the west could have on the industry in Morocco. On the hostel rooftop I stared out at the dark outline of the Atlas Mountains and up at the stars, just revelling in the fact I was here and not behind my desk at work. I had a “moment” playing Algerian singer Khaled’s 1996 single Aïcha, before listening once again to Rosalía’s Di mi nombre.
El mal querer (roughly translated as “The Bad Desire”) is Catalan singer Rosalía’s second album which came out shortly after my return from Marrakech and therefore ties in with my memory of the trip. It has brought her international fame for her distinctive blending of flamenco and Latin pop. With its celestial album cover, El mal querer is based on Flamenca, a 13th century novel about a woman imprisoned by her fiancé, taking us on a complex journey through pain and anger as well as sexuality and commitment. I discovered Rosalía by chance after stumbling across Di mi nombre, before quickly getting into the now iconic Malamente as well as Pienso en ti mirá. Whilst my experience of the album may be limited because I don’t speak Spanish, her vocals able to convey a mood and tell a story without language. With a minimal backing track of synthesizers, keys and flamenco guitar, the focus here is strictly on her voice as it weaves through the story via trills and fluctuations, with occasional support from a small group of acapella singers and traditional flamenco handclaps to keep the beat going throughout. El mal querer manages to create a distinctive medieval/arabesque/flamenco sound which feels refreshingly new and relevant. Listen out for the James Blake-inspired production in Nana, and the slightly unexpected Justin Timberlake sample in Bagdad. I have never heard an album quite like this, and have no doubt that it will be looked back on as a classic in years to come.
Over the past year, Rosalía has effectively “gone mainstream”, featuring alongside the one and only J Balvin in the solid gold reggaeton smash Con altura, which topped the charts in Spain and across Latin America. She has very firmly established herself as a household name in Spain, with her sudden omnipresence becoming a running joke on social media according to my Spanish friend. Although Con altura is undoubtedly one of the best pop songs of Summer 2019, it failed to make impact in the UK, presumably because music industry chiefs here didn’t think the British public could cope with a Latin song that didn’t feature Justin Bieber. The same is true for the sizzling hot Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi featuring Ozuna, and the insanely catchy Milionària. It has always been a matter of frustration to me that foreign-language songs do not impact English charts. Viral sensations like Despacito, Gangnam Style and La Macarena are the exceptions, but it seems there is no in between – we either get a global megahit or nothing at all. With Rosalía’s apparent move away from her flamenco roots to a more mainstream urban sound, it’s likely she’ll soon record an English-language song and earn more recognition outside the Spanish-speaking world, but for now in the UK we’ll just have to stay content with the ready-salted sound of Jess Glynne.
Following the unpleasant Beast from the East and Salisbury Novichock Poisoning period which set a dark shadow over the start of Spring 2018, a few of us decided to head off to Barcelona for a spontaneous late April getaway. This would be, quite shockingly, my first visit to mainland Spain. A jewel on the edge of the Balearic Sea, Barcelona is the 12th most visited city in the world, with icon status reaching the same level as New York, Tokyo or Paris. We had booked ourselves four nights in a modern open-plan Airbnb right in the heart of the unpronounceable Eixample district. Famed for its grid-like octagonal blocks which you can see plastered all over any travel Instagram account, Eixample is at the centre of the city’s diverse shopping, restaurant and nightlife culture. You can spend hours getting lost exploring its leafy streets, stopping for a coffee or trying on outfits in one of its boutique clothes shops before walking down La Rambla to the sea. To me, Barcelona seemed like the perfect city – a liberal, cosmopolitan atmosphere, beautiful people, unique architecture, frequently sunny, an unending list of things to do, and of course a large white beach on which to lounge around.
A leafy avenue somewhere in Eixample.
Long walks on the beach in April – looking towards La Barceloneta.
Our relatively short time in the city was spent exploring its various parks and gardens, as well as trialling the raucous seafront nightlife. With a birthday to celebrate, three of us set to work obtaining decorations, a cake, balloons and a present – a real test of teamwork when being done abroad and on the DL. Celebrations in full swing, we headed for Shôko, a large nightclub in the Barceloneta neighbourhood attracting a mixed crowd of locals and tourists, playing mainly reggaeton as well as American, British and French hip-hop. As soon as our Uber pulled up outside we were whisked quickly into the club by a bouncer without even having to queue. Feeling like Kendall Jenner on one of her important working trips to Europe, we were ushered down a glossy transparent staircase into the vast open space which makes up the club. A long bar ran down one side with another circular one in the centre, while a large DJ booth took up most of the far wall on which featured an ever-changing projection. There was also a raised VIP area framed by two female dancers who gyrated away on platforms to the likes of J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Ozuna, while a line of handsome waiters ceremoniously delivered one uncomfortably large bottle of Grey Goose after another. The beach-facing side was completely open, so you could go and have a drunken cigarette looking out at the sea before heading back in for more debauchery. It was here, sitting on a sandy row of steps, that we got chatting to a group of bronzed British dancers, whose de facto leader was a glamorous Brummie named Sinead. They were doing a year at dance college here and living in Sitges, a place down the coast which Sinead described as “gay heaven”. Seeing their carefree attitudes and love for this city, and knowing that I would soon be back to working my stressful job in Leeds, I became quite envious. Vowing to do a longer stint here at some point, I finally realised why this stretch of the Spanish coast has become so popular with Brits. With its relaxed outlook and warm climate, as well as the relative proximity to home, it’s no wonder Spain holds more British immigrants than any other EU country, with an estimated 293,500 choosing to up sticks and escape the drizzle as of 2017 (click here to download a lovely pdf with more info). Whether they’re swigging 2 for 1 daiquiris in Benidorm or going on an architectural tour of Valencia, the Brits have a deep love affair with Spain, and I’m quickly realising that I’m no exception. The looming possibility of a no-deal Brexit has thrown many of these peoples’ livelihoods into uncertainty, and it will almost certainly become trickier for young people like Sinead to spend time studying abroad. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has assured that the rights of expats would remain the same post-Brexit, as long as this is reciprocated for Spaniards in the UK. What will happen to the British migrants if Catalonia declares independence remains to be seen… After an unexpected snog with one of Sinead’s dancer friends, I headed back onto the DF and carried on busting my usual slick moves to Luis Fonsi & Demi Lovato’s Spanglish summer banger Èchame La Culpa.
Iced coffee pitstop during one of our walks to the beach.
The apartment – birthday ready.
Parc de la Ciutadella.
The Arc de Triomf blocked by some idiota.
Since leaving university, I, like many people, have become a pretty infrequent clubber. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a wild night on the lash – of course I do – it’s more that the effort it takes to organise makes the whole thing quite off-putting. Not to mention the energy and logistics required for the actual night out, plus the inevitable brutal hangover the next morning. Back in my sprightlier years when I first started clubbing in 2011/2012, organisation was never an issue because you were guaranteed to run into several groups of school friends throughout the night. Nowadays the sight of someone from school usually involves a curt nod, with a strained conversation at best and in the worst cases, a hard pass. Wearing One Direction-inspired chinos and a hideous pair of grey suede desert boots, I would severely heat-damage my hair with a pair of straighteners and head out for a night in my hometown’s then place to be, a sticky hole called Moko. In those innocent times, we listened to David Guetta, Jason Derulo, Flo Rida, Loud-era Rihanna, and an array of seriously questionable house, but the track which stands out when I think back to clubbing in 2011 will always be Avicii’s Levels. I first became aware of Avicii (real name Tim Bergling) following his early 2011 version of iiO’s Rapture featuring Nadia Ali. His sudden passing aged 28 in Muscat, Oman happened a few days before our visit to Barcelona. The Swedish DJ left behind a great legacy, being hugely influential to the EDM scene during its heyday in the early 10s, and producing a plethora of immediately recognisable feel good power bops. His unexpected passing was on my mind for much of my time in Catalonia, with classics such as Hey Brother, Addicted to You and Silhouettes running through my head, as well as the more recent Lonely Together featuring Rita Ora. I know that many people can’t stand this type of music, branding it as bland, generic and crowd-pleasing computerised rubbish, and his bizarre fusing of EDM and country has long been criticised, but there’s no denying the electric effect these tunes have had on large groups of people at festivals and in clubs across the world over the last decade. Yes, obviously I can’t stand Wake Me Up and wouldn’t be caught listening to Levels anymore, but when the DJ in Shôko dropped Hey Brother and the words “Thank You Legend” appeared on the projection, the crowd went wild and I couldn’t help but get goosebumps. The lyrics have a typically Scandinavian sense of optimism and unification, while the bluegrass guitar, blaring horn sample and fast-paced EDM beat create a vaguely stoical anthem which sounds quite relevant alongside today’s political climate. As with other EDM producers such as Alesso, Axwell and Sebastian Ingrosso, Avicii’s formula was to focus predominantly on the track and beat, then add in the lyrics afterwards to help it appeal to a wider audience, usually settling on some bellowing Nordic wisdom about what someone’s father once said. Yes, many of these tunes now sound dated, and Swedish EDM doesn’t have quite the same global appeal as it did in 2011 through 2013, but Avicii’s music will always remind me of those exciting first years of clubbing and new-found freedom and optimism, before the reality and pressures of adult life really kicked in. Avicii joins a long list of artists who have sadly passed away in their late 20s, clearly struggling to meet the demands and face the intense scrutiny put on him from an early age. With a posthumous album simply called Tim now released, and a rumoured 200 unknown tracks stored away, it’s clear his legacy and influence will live on long beyond his short time on earth.
As night turned to day, we found ourselves stumbling through Barcelona’s business district with the intention of catching the metro from Ciutadella Vila Olímpica. As it turns out, the station doesn’t open until around 5:30am, so we spent a miserable half hour sharing a kerb with prostitutes on the busy Carrer de Salvador Espriu as we tried fruitlessly to hail a cab, before eventually taking the metro anyway alongside early morning commuters. There is no doubt that I will be returning to Barcelona. With our short time there and wild party antics taking priority, there wasn’t nearly enough time to properly explore its main attractions such as Mount Tibidabo, Park Güell, or the towering Sagrada Família, which is even more impressive from the outside than I imagined. The trip followed a particularly intense month at work, and was to be a welcome break away from Leeds with my closest friends. What it became, though, was the trigger for a period of deep self-analysis which spanned for much of the rest of Summer 2018. My friends seemed carefree and spontaneous, while all I felt for much of the trip was uptight, anxious and detached. In the three years since graduation, how had I reached this point where I didn’t like the person I’d become?
A recent promotion had got me hurtling towards being some corporate wanker who can’t separate their mind from their work. I was dissatisfied, unfulfilled and mentally drained. Being on holiday as a millennial obviously involves numerous photoshoots for Instagram, but for some reason on this trip, these fuelled insecurities about my appearance and how I present myself online. When I look back on Barcelona, I see it as the point at which I realised things were not ok, and the beginning stages to actively bettering myself both mentally and physically. I realised how detrimental it can be to overthink, and how crucial it is to live in and enjoy the moment.
Depression can hit completely unexpectedly and is like being stuck in a maze at night with creeping vines slowly binding your feet (yes, like that scene in Harry Potter IV). What’s important is to try and mentally rise above this maze then look down on it to figure out where to turn next. Only by addressing and unpicking what is making you unhappy can you begin to resolve the issue and bring yourself back to contentment. The job situation was quite simple to resolve, the social media one slightly more complicated. Whether they like it or not, every single person I know under 70 has had some kind of brush with social media. From Instagram to Facebook, Snapchat to LinkedIn, we have all at some point made a decision about how we wish to present ourselves online. On our first full day in the city, the sun was beating down and I chose to wear a pale blue Oxford shirt paired with some very short shorts from Zara. This was a calculated decision which allowed me to obtain some sensible head shots for LinkedIn, as well as a more suggestive full-length number for Instagram. Why was I doing this? Recognition? Popularity? Sex appeal? There are those who believe that we as a generation spend way too much time worrying over our social platforms which is true to an extent, but for so many people this has now become our way of expressing ourselves to the world, of marking our individuality and as a tool to promote creative output. Is it so wrong for this to be one of our main concerns rather than, say, meeting some invented deadline at work? The biggest issue people rightly have with social media is the affect it has on our mental health, especially where FOMO is concerned. Some still hold the archaic belief that we should just cut it out altogether, but this in itself would instil a sense of isolation in anyone born after 1985, which in turn could fuel more depression. Taking a week out can certainly be hugely liberating, but it’s 2019, and social media takes up a huge part of our lives, period. What’s important is to be aware of exactly what you’re posting and why, rather than aimlessly documenting your life without a second thought whilst constantly scrolling and becoming envious of others. Be aware that everyone on Instagram is going through the same process of storying and posting and refreshing day-by-day, and think deeply about the message, persona or aesthetic you wish to convey. This will give you a sense of purpose rather than one of unease and self-doubt.
L’Estel Ferit, a 1992 Olympics sculpture by Rebecca Horn, facing the famous W Hotel.
I had a wild time in Barcelona with my best friends, but the anxiety I felt for a lot of the trip is something I have since had to address and work to resolve. Early-20s are a tricky time for so many people as the pressures of being an adult are clashing with the desire to remain a child, not to mention financial insecurities and body confidence issues. For Avicii these pressures were paired with becoming suddenly very famous and constantly in demand, which sadly became impossible to content with. I shall return to Barcelona someday soon, but this time I’ll be walking down the Shôko staircase with a renewed feeling of self-confidence that I hope will only grow as I get older.
In 1993, Bill Bryson said “Bradford’s role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison, and it does this very well”, a statement which I feel was cruelly unfair at the time, and outdated in the present day. It’s true that Bradford gets a bad press. Within Yorkshire it can often be the butt of jokes, and is sometimes seen as a forlorn forgotten sister to Leeds, while select friends from The South will screw up their faces at even the mention of its name. The place Bryson visited whilst compiling his Notes from a Small Island was an industrial city post-Thatcher, which indeed must have seemed bleak, but fast-forward 25 years, and the core of the city has a very different atmosphere to what it once will have done. The first few years of my life were spent in the West Yorkshire town of Brighouse, so for me, any visit to Bradford, Halifax or Huddersfield evokes a degree of nostalgia at the sight of those sturdy brick houses and towering factory chimneys. On the second day of 2018, I took my friend Luke (a born and bred Londoner) to enjoy the sights and sounds of West Yorkshire’s hidden gem, the proud birthplace of J.B. Priestly, Kimberley Walsh and Zayn. Eleven months later, after a woefully disappointing sexual conquest in Harrogate, I put on Lil Peep’s posthumous second album Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2, and took the bus back to Bradford with the intention of taking some decent photos for this site.
As a child, trips to Bradford meant one thing – a visit The National Museum of Photography, Film & Television (now The National Science and Media Museum). The wide-ranging and interactive exhibitions, along with adjoining IMAX cinema, would fill me with excitement, giving me my first experience of camera operation, green screen and an interest in filmmaking and television production from a young age. My Dad and I would spend hours in a section called TV Heaven, where you can select any episode of any show from the British television archives, then sit and watch it in your own booth. In the age of Netflix this sounds quite unremarkable, but back in the early 00s it was a mind-blowing futuristic treat. Visiting as an adult, the interactive sections don’t have quite the same draw, but up-to-date exhibitions on Fake News and “The History of the Internet” kept Luke and I entertained. With captivated brains but empty stomachs, we took a quick Uber up the Great Horton Road to the well-known Kashmiri eatery, Mumtaz. Every time I eat here, the service and food seem to be 10/10, and as it was that strange first week of the year when everyone is still in hibernation, the stylishly decorated restaurant was virtually empty and we were well looked after. First opened in 1979 by someone’s grandma, Mumtaz prides itself on being a British-based Pakistani institution that now has three restaurants across the north, as well as producing its own international brand of ready meals and halal baby food. There are plenty of great places to explore for a curry in Bradford, but it’s usually Mumtaz that I end up at.
The National Science and Media Museum.
The presence of large Pakistani communities in Bradford and West Yorkshire is mainly owing to the fact that during the 1950s and 60s, many moved from the Azad Kashmir region of Pakistan (then part of the British Empire) to assist with the steel and textile industries which had suffered a major labour shortage following the Second World War. The decline in British industry under Thatcher’s government then left thousands of Bradford residents (White and Pakistani) without work, accelerating the social issues and racial divisions which sadly continue today. Discrimination and Islamophobia against the Pakistani communities in West Yorkshire are a common problem. One young white lad from Keighley, whom I met in a Leeds nightclub smoking area, described his hometown as being “full of p***s” who drive around at night and cause trouble. Presumably this means there are no young white men in West Yorkshire who do the exact same thing? Looking past the obvious racial tensions, it’s clear that communities from all backgrounds in places like Bradford, Huddersfield, Dewsbury and Keighley have been severely neglected by the government since the 1980s. If the pipedream of Brexit becomes reality, then maybe Bradford will start to see fresh opportunities and industrial growth again, with new jobs for people from all backgrounds, but who knows at this stage; certainly not the people in charge!
Change in the air: Bradford architecture old and new.
Luke seemed very pleasantly surprised by his Bradford experience so far, and it was only about to get better, as we had pantomime tickets (I know) for the Alhambra Theatre. The Alhambra is a carefully preserved Grade II listed building in the heart of the city, a proud relic of grandeur from the height of industrial boom. I was lucky enough to see Priestly’s An Inspector Calls here a few years ago, but it’s during panto season that the place really flourishes. Every year, Luke and I have a running joke over the outrageous pantomime line-ups on offer around the UK. From Katie Price as Maleficent in Woking, to Joe McElderry as Aladdin in Wolverhampton, the obscure combinations never fail to amuse, and tonight’s offering of Coleen Nolan as the Fairy Godmother in Bradford was no different. The show, which included a bizarre segment halfway through involving 3D glasses, also starred the ceaselessly energetic variety favourite “Yorkshire’s Panto King” Billy Pearce, along with (disappointingly) Coleen’s son, Shane Richie Jr. As she didn’t seem in the mood for dancing, the Loose Woman was transported in for her opening monologue on a large hoop suspended from the ceiling, reminiscent of a P!nk concert. There then ensued a lively evening of song, dance and lewd innuendo for all the family. We left the performance with smiles on our faces, despite headaches, temporary deafness and mild shell shock.
The beautiful Alhambra Theatre, built in 1913.
On my return to the city some eleven months later, it felt more like a year or two had passed. Stuck in an overly demanding job for a company I hated, and hooked on a selfish idiot for way too long, 2018 was a year of deep frustration which turned into one of great reflection and self-realisation. On that particular autumn morning, I woke up in Harrogate at said idiot’s house with the decision that it was time to Dua Lipa New Rules-it and never speak to him again. Having recently handed in my notice and booked a solo trip to Marrakech, I was in the midst a pretty major “fuck it” phase. Listening to emo rapper Lil Peep as I arrived back in Bradford, I got off the bus into the sunlight and looked up at the city’s former Wool Exchange, a beautiful gothic building which is now a large Waterstones. While the regeneration of Leeds has made it the dynamic and bustling modern city it is today, a Saturday afternoon there will involve dodging rowdy stag dos and persistent charity workers, only to trip over a horizontal spice addict. Bradford seems to have preserved a calmer and more family oriented atmosphere, with the bright, modern Broadway Shopping Centre opening in 2015, and the complete transformation of Centenary Square which opened to much jubilation in 2012. At the focus of the square is the serene Mirror Pool, which families can sit around and enjoy in summer, and there is also a raised platform away from the pool which serves as an ideal hangout for local yutes. During golden hour the place is so calm and relaxed that you forget you’re in a city centre at all – certainly a far cry from Bill Bryson’s Bradford of the early 90s.
Sunday Morning Coming Down – a quiet coffee enjoyed on Market Street.
Golden hour at the Mirror Pool in Centenary Square.
Sunset on Hall Ings.
Lil Peep (real name Gustav Elijah Åhr) was a hugely talented American rapper who rose to popularity via Soundcloud, becoming a key figure of the mid 10s emo revival movement within hip hop. Instantly recognisable for his startling facial tattoos and bleached hair, Åhr led a troubled personal life battling mental illness and addiction, very sadly leading to his death by accidental overdose aged 21 in November 2017. Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 is a posthumous collection of previously leaked tracks, many of which focus on depression, addiction, the frustrations of living in modern-day America and the general feeling of otherness which affects so many young people today. Growing up I never really went through the typical “emo phase” which some teenagers experience and, on the whole, the music I listen to is often upbeat, but Lil Peep’s lyrics and outlook somehow resonated with my state of mind during the autumn of 2018. The beat to Falling Down (feat. XXXTENTACION) and its repeated chorus, the melody of which contours hypnotically, carried me through much of this period. My impression is that the song is about reaching out to those closest to you and making sure you experience the best and worst parts of life together, with the lyric “sunlight on your skin when I’m not around” maybe alluding to the shiny filtered Instagram images we now see of our friends daily. Their conversational excerpt on the abruptness of death is especially poignant since both artists have now passed away. Life Is Beautiful voices the pressures to stay positive and elated even when faced with tragedy and grief, while in Cry Alone, he vents his resentment at feeling like an outsider in his own hometown. Whilst this may not be an album to put on at your next cheese and wine night, it’s interesting how useful this type of music can be when you’re in a low place. The more it is discussed, the more it becomes clear that mental illness and depression will affect everyone in different ways at any point life. While parents of teenagers may worry about the influence an artist like Lil Peep could have, his lyrics are actually incredibly important because they voice those feelings of negativity that young people might not otherwise be able to put into words. Listening to emo rap doesn’t mean your sixteen-year-old is about to get a large tattoo above his right eyebrow, but on some level he might relate to the feelings of hopelessness and disparity that Lil Peep and many others convey. Trends in music will always reflect the general zeitgeist, especially amongst young people, so the fact that emo rap has seen a recent wave of success in the charts from artists such as Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty is no coincidence, not to mention the ghostly demeanour of pop’s latest goût du jour, Billie Eilish. Both Lil Peep and the now infamous XXXTENTACION have left behind a genre-defining legacy which I expect we will still be hearing influences of in years to come.
Listen to Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2 here.
With a few days of holiday still to use up before Christmas, I decided to head out to Poland’s capital and stay with my friend, Jarek, whom I’d met in a more tropical country some years ago now. Warsaw’s history over the past century is well documented for the atrocities and terrible hardship it suffered during the Nazi occupation of Poland, the start of which was the breaking point that began World War II. The city is now returning to its original status as one the most thriving centres in Eastern Europe for culture and the arts, with countless modern museums, galleries, bars and leisure centres, as well as its iconic covered markets or hałas.
The Warsaw Spire complex, completed in 2016.
Jarek works for a creative workspace in the Śródmieście borough near Hała Koszyki, so that is where I headed to when I first arrived, to say hello and drop off my luggage. Hała Koszyki is one of Warsaw’s many covered market halls, and has recently been re-generated to house a splendid array of coffee bars, restaurants and organic food stores. I can’t praise enough what they’ve done with the space; staying true to the original design but now with added focaccia and some gentle piano music playing overhead as the locals sip on their craft ales and eat halloumi burgers. A large, tastefully decorated spruce was the focal point of the hała, and as it was now nearing the end of November, I allowed myself to feel slightly festive for the first time. A drinks and nibbles thing was going on at Jarek’s workplace that evening which I was invited to. After a much needed scrub-up and outfit change, I found myself perched on the end of a plush sofa with a large glass of red and a selection of Polish canapés, making conversation with a group of people who all very kindly switched to English for my benefit. Just as the conversation was starting to dwindle, a magician appeared (walked over from the next sofa) and performed a series of tricks which were equally confusing whichever language you spoke. After working with and befriending several Polish people over the years, being the only Brit at a function here didn’t feel quite as alien as it might have done in another country. Whilst Jarek was off schmoozing clients, I very quickly tapped into the wry sense of humour and easy-going nature of the group I was sitting with, many of whom had either studied or worked in the UK at some point. With the UK and Poland forming closer ties during the aftermath of World War II, the late 20th Century saw a steady stream of Polish nationals emigrating to join the British workforce and settle away from the scars and dark memories of a country destroyed by fascism. The expansion of the EU in 2004 saw more movement, partly people coming to join their families, partly those seeking employment and a fresh start. There are now an estimated 922,000 Poles living in the UK and making up a valuable part of the workforce across all sectors. The Brexit referendum in 2016 saw a sharp rise in violence towards Polish people, with hate crimes increasing by 46% in the immediate aftermath of the vote. I had half expected a little hostility on the subject of Brexit, but they seemed remarkably breezy over it. The impression I got was that they had all greatly enjoyed their time in the UK, but no one seemed particularly keen on returning. I suppose who would want to go back to a sniffy and unwelcoming island nation that is in the midst of a wholly unnecessary political meltdown?
Winter setting in outside the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
The weather during my short visit (permanent blizzard conditions with strong winds) would have caused Britain to come to a standstill, but somehow the Poles managed to soldier on and go about their business as usual. As this trip took place pre-Beast from the East, I quite naively expected this to be the only snow I’d experience that winter. With a hoodless coat and thin H&M jeans on, I probably wasn’t best prepared to tackle an icy Eastern European snowstorm, but luckily for me, Warsaw is abundant in fascinating and well-funded museums. The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is an impressive postmodern building on the sight of the former Jewish ghetto which was destroyed in 1943. A clear highlight is a stunning reconstruction of the interior of the 17th century Gwoździec Synagogue, which was fire damaged by advancing Russian forces in World War I, then partly rebuilt only to be completely destroyed by the Germans in 1941. For over a thousand years, Poland was home to one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities in the world, but troubles began to emerge over the last couple of centuries as antisemitism rose from both Russian and Germanic influences. The museum’s accessible and well-curated exhibitions take you through this history from when Poland was the centre of the Jewish world in the 1500s, through to growing antisemitism and the eventual Nazi genocide in of around 6 million European men, women and children, from which only 11% of Poland’s Jews survived. It’s hard to write about this without sounding contrived, but facing the reality of what happened, and acknowledging the shear cruelty that humans are capable of reaching seems incredibly important, especially during the current global climate of social division. The Warsaw Rising Museum, located in the Wola district, documents the failed bid for liberation from German forces by Polish underground resistance groups during the summer of 1944. Filled with artefacts, archive footage and interviews from survivors, the details of these 63 days of fighting are exposed, with particular focus on the lives of civilians during this bloody and complex era.
A glimpse of the beautifully reconstructed Gwoździec Synagogue ceiling.
Warsaw’s reconstructed Old Town.
Since the war, Warsaw’s old town, or Stare Miasto, has been carefully reconstructed and has established popularity with tourists, however, most Poles I speak to seem quite cynical about this and tell me to go to Krakow for real Polish architecture instead. The ominous Palace of Culture and Science was given to Poland as a “gift” from the Soviets, and looms over the centre of the city, acting as a focal point. As with other outrageously large buildings in post-Soviet countries, it acts as an imposing reminder that says “the Soviets were here at some point in time”. Jarek’s friends questioned why I had chosen to come to Warsaw in the middle of winter, because apparently summer is the best season, when bars are open along the Vistula River and its banks become a sociable beach hangout. I promised I would return and am already starting to visualise a longer trip incorporating Gdansk, Warsaw and Krakow. The perk of being in Warsaw as a guest and not just a tourist was that I was guaranteed great food, and Jarek’s choice of restaurants certainly did not disappoint. Nestled in the Old Mokotów neighbourhood just south of the centre, Restauracja PAPU is a cosy traditional old-style Polish establishment with wooden beams, white tablecloths, a large fireplace adorned with firs and fairy lights and, of course, a sparkling Christmas tree in the corner. A wholesome pumpkin soup warmed me through after a day of trekking around in the snow, and a rich roasted duck with cherry sauce was washed down perfectly with a Portuguese Merlot. An unfortunate earlier incident with Uber was soon forgotten as we sat back and put the world to rights. PAPU is a real treat, and I will be insisting on going back when I’m next in Poland.
The Palace of Culture and Science standing strong through a blizzard.
Whilst braving Warsaw’s bitter winds, I listened to a lot of music, but it was Canadian singer Jessie Reyez’s debut EP Kiddo which stood out. Reyez is a singer and songwriter who has worked closely with Calvin Harris (through whom I discovered her) and featured twice on Eminem’s problematic recent album, Kamikaze. Her latest songwriting credits include Harris’ 2018 megahits One Kiss (feat. Dua Lipa) and Promises (feat. Sam Smith). With just seven tracks, Kiddo brims with anger and sadness on the subjects of misogyny and manipulation, with particular emphasis on the music industry itself. The album opener, Fuck It, and most other tracks are very much “not for radio”, I suppose partly because they form an exposé on the inequalities that female artists face compared with their male counterparts. The standout track for me is the brutally honest Gatekeeper, whose lyrics “Oh I’m the gatekeeper, Spread your legs, Open up, You could be famous” unveil a dark set of rules sadly familiar to many women across all the arts. First hearing the song on a crowded tram, I was sickened by the idea of a “gatekeeper” to stardom, but certain men in power have used this guise for years, both for sexual gratification and as a form of dominance. Reyez’s impressive range shines through as she wails “my straightjacket’s custom made” on Shutter Island, and her mellow disappointment at being manipulated again by someone she loves is covered in her most well-known song, Figures. Blue Ribbon (feat. Tim Suby) has a definite M.I.A. vibe, and the interlude Colombian King & Queen gives us a raw insight into her heritage and upbringing. I would describe Reyez’s distinctive voice as similar to Halsey but not quite so bland, with the pitch of Jessie J but actually palatable. For me, it’s her devastatingly melancholic vocals that are the main pull for Kiddo. The controversial subject matter of the songs is the only reason I can think of for how this didn’t chart outside of Canada. EPs like this don’t tend to get big promotion deals or radio airplay for some reason. Maybe she’s missing a trick not dancing on stage in a one-piece next to Pitbull?
“Azerbaijanis clearly know how to have fun, and it was great to be part of whatever it was they were celebrating, despite being uninvited strangers.”
My friend, Abz, and I are in the middle of a ten-day overland adventure taking in two countries in the Caucasus region. After half a week exploring Georgia, which predominantly practices Orthodox Christianity, it was now time to head over the border to the Shia Islam country of Azerbaijan. Arriving in a country I knew very little about beyond its many Eurovision douze points, I was intrigued to see what this distant oil-rich nation on the Caspian Sea had to offer.
Trains from Tbilisi to Azerbaijan’s shiny capital, Baku, run every night and take around 13 hours. The idea is you go to sleep in one city and wake up in another, although, in reality, “sleep” is a misconception when you’re crammed into an airless four-berth cabin with an elderly Japanese couple. The 2nd Class carriage is kept under tight control by two rotund Azeri aunties, who offer cups of black tea and dish out bedding with a permanent look of mischief. At around midnight, an unsmiling guard raps on the door to collect passports and visas, then, one by one, passengers are summoned into an empty cabin to be interrogated by two armed men. The aunties oversee proceedings, taking great pleasure in the general confusion of the whole affair. We were asked if we had been to Armenia which we vehemently denied. The two countries have been in conflict since 1988 over ownership of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. If you try entering Azerbaijan with an Armenian stamp in your passport, you will be treated with a much higher level of suspicion. After an uncomfortable night, one of the aunties flung open the cabin door to announce we had half an hour left. Clammy and unrested, I stuck on American rapper/singer Post Malone’s 2016 debut, Stoney, and stared out at a grey morning on the vast empty flatlands that make up much of central Azerbaijan.
At around 7am we were finally freed from the confines of our cabin, and found ourselves in an empty modern station paved with glossy white marble. The Wi-Fi was instant so with not much bother we were able to email for an earlier hotel check-in and order ourselves an Uber. A fifteen-minute journey costs around 5 manat (£2.00) and, heading east along the bay past larger-than-life billboards and modern tower blocks, we arrived at our home for the next two nights. The Autograph CollectionBoulevard Hotel is a wide white building which looks out on the Caspian Sea (technically the world’s largest lake), situated in a remote area dubbed “White City” by the city’s redevelopers. The air by the waterside is not something I’d experienced before – a warm breeze carrying the constant aroma of crude oil. Entering the Boulevard this disappears immediately as you are hit with crisp air conditioning and a subtle whiff of oud. This was easily one of the plushest hotels I have stayed in and a steal at £45 per night. The foyer is vast, pleasantly lit with modern chandeliers which are raised above a selection of lounge furniture to suit every mood. Our stylish city-facing room looked over what was currently still a building site, reinforcing my impression that we were here pre-regeneration. Drained and smelly from the train, it was time to spend the day living like kings, indulging in all the offerings of the pool, spa and massage rooms. After a hearty meal downstairs in the White City Bar & Lounge, we went for a walk around the grounds and ended up gate-crashing a lively party in the hotel’s large ballroom. Helping ourselves to food from the heaped buffet, and cursing the fact we’d already paid for dinner, we bobbed along to the live swing band and tried not to look too out of place. Azerbaijanis clearly know how to have fun, and it was great to be part of whatever it was they were celebrating, despite being uninvited strangers.
New City Park
Newly built flats near Nərimanov Park
The Caspian Sea
Baku is crafting itself as a city that impresses. Since its independence from the USSR in 1991, Azerbaijan has focused its oil wealth on the capital, creating a cosmopolitan atmosphere around unique and stunning landmarks that rightly give Baku its reputation as the “Dubai of the Caucasus”. The sprawling Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Centre opened in 2012 and is an architectural treat. Made from shimmering white stone which curves pleasingly in every direction, this conference hall and museum sits proudly on a hill separating it from all other nearby buildings. The fluidity of the design means you can actually walk on the building itself and explore its exterior from every differentiating angle, making it a sure-fire Instagram goldmine. The centre is named after the former president, whose son, Ilham Aliev, has been in power since 2003. Aliev is a delightful sounding man accused of corruption and multiple human rights offences, whose convoy we actually happened to witness as we walked down Neftçiler Prospekti, the main street running alongside Milli Park. I went to take a photo of the line of official vehicles as they went past, but was immediately shouted at by an armed officer standing 50 meters away.
Milli Park, or Baku Boulevard as it is also known, is probably the most pleasant area to visit in Baku – a 3.75km stretch of greenery which serves as a recreational area and promenade between the sea and the city. Because I was chatting so much shit, Abz suggested a 5-minute spell of silence as we walked through the park, meaning we were able to more appreciate our surroundings rather than focusing on my usual slew of facetious comments and witty banter. The park really is lovely, and made for a perfect stroll all the way from our hotel to Little Venice and the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, which is wackily built in the shape of a rolled up carpet. The museum is worth a visit but operates under a strict set of rules including not being allowed to walk on any of the carpets. We didn’t walk up to the iconic Flame Towers, rather admiring them from the stone streets of the Old City, where I spent a little too long trying to capture the obvious “old meets new” snapshot. The Old City, known as Icherisheher, is a well-preserved throwback to the 12th century. It was all too easy to imagine it as it once was – the gateway between China and Europe on the ancient trading route, the Silk Road. With J Hus – Did You See running round our heads, we got lost heading upwards through the narrow meandering alleyways, until we reached the ancient Palace of the Shirvanshahs, which unfortunately was just closing so I am unable to tell you anything about it. Luckily the walk was not wasted, as outside the palace you are blessed with a view across the city taking in the Flame Towers, which glowed orange in the early evening sun.
The Heydar Aliev Centre
Neftçiler Prospekti, still decked out for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix
The Flame Towers
One thing weighing on my mind during the three days spent in Baku was the LGBT “crackdown” that had happened just a week before our visit. It’s not illegal to be gay in Azerbaijan but still, it has been rated as the worst country in Europe for LGBT rights, which is pretty embarrassing for a nation that is trying so hard to become a growing beacon for tourism and international trade. I can’t pretend I wasn’t a little on edge walking around knowing that at least 60 people taking part in LGBT gatherings had been arrested here the week before, mainly under the offence of “resisting police orders”. A spokesman for Azerbaijan’s interior ministry had said “these raids are not against all sexual minorities. The arrested are people who demonstratively show a lack of respect for those around them”. I wasn’t there, so it’s hard for me to say anything without assuming, but it seems the general attitude is “we know it happens, we just don’t want to have to see it going on”. The sad thing is that with global attitudes towards LGBT rights shifting so rapidly, there is now a reactionary movement to inhibit them in a bid to quash the so-called “gay agenda”, meaning that the lives of gay people in Russia and other post-Soviet countries have actually gotten worse in recent years. Baku is stunning and well worth a visit, but whichever way you look at it, Ilham Aliev’s dictatorial style of leadership and poor track record for human rights don’t do it any favours.
Final view of the city
Back on the 22:10 train to Georgia after three days in the Azerbaijan, I got up Post Malone’s Stoney again, and chose the aptly named track Leave to listen to first. Real name Austin Richard Post, and irritatingly one school year younger than me, the US rapper / singer / producer has become hugely popular over the past two years. Known predominantly on social media for his hairiness and refusal to shower, Post is also famed for his unique vocal range and slick production, blending a modern brand of wistful folk music with hip-hop and RnB. Broken Whiskey Glass starts with a bleak, urgent feel which carries on throughout most of the album. The structure for many of the songs, including Go Flex, I Fall Apart and Yours Truly, Austin Post is a bellowing polyphonic chorus surrounded by frantic verses, whilst the melody rises and falls restlessly. His early-20s struggle for success is evident, with money, alcohol and other temptations becoming a running theme. Congratulations ( feat. Quavo) and Deja Vu (feat. Justin Bieber) are its big sellers and instantly recognisable for their chart success, but that doesn’t stop them from rolling rhythmically along with the rest of the album, because really any of these songs would do well commercially given the right promotion. Hit This Hard is trancelike and mesmerising, while the instantly catchy Money Made Me Do It (feat. 2 Chainz) would fit in perfectly on any good pre-drinks playlist. Post describes his music as “genre-less”, but has been criticised for appropriating hip-hop culture. There are similarities in musical style to 6LACK and Khalid, along with clear Bob Dylan influences, particularly in the album’s closer Feeling Whitney. Post’s refusal to comply specifically to the rules of any set genre are what make him so interesting to many people. His unconventional appearance tells a story in itself, but it’s his impassioned lyrics and the brooding beat on each track that make him stand out.
“Why she chose not to inform us we’d be sleeping above an actual dungeon remains a mystery.”
It was a fairly painless three-hour trip from Kutaisi to Tbilisi at the back of a marshrutka, a shared taxi that is typical across post-Soviet countries. Our first experience of the city was Didube – a chaotic terminal for buses and taxis which can only be described as the Slough of Tbilisi. Because I insisted on having an authentic Soviet metro experience, we battled our way with suitcases past countless offers of a taxi, through a hectic marketplace to the station, where we were stared at by everyone for being the only tourists with luggage stupid enough not to just get a cab.
Our Airbnb was a wackily decorated apartment on the 16th floor of a grey high-rise, situated near the Technical University and the colossal Tbilisi Sports Palace (once the largest basketball arena in the entire USSR!). An elderly lady showed us round via the medium of mime, and once she had left we slumped across the sofa admiring our personal panoramic view of the city. Tbilisi is an unusual shape for a capital, hemmed in by hills on either side and centred along the Mtkvari River. The area we headed to on the first evening was of course the old town – an immaculate display of traditional Georgian houses nestled alongside the sulphur baths for which the city is known. The metro is dimly lit and crowded with unsmiling faces; the engines so deafeningly loud they become hypnotic. Emerging from the station at Avlabari, we followed signs towards the river and were met with a stunning view of the Narikala Fortress, lit up on the hillside with the old town and the flashy new Bridge of Peace below. There is no doubt that this place is ready and prepped for the predicted rise in tourism as flights cheapen and the popularity for quick city breaks grows.
Impressive Soviet design at Technical University metro station.
A policeman checking Insta at Avlabari.
Metekhi Bridge in front of the Narikala Fortress.
The picturesque coloured buildings of the old town cluster around a square where one of those interminable Covent Garden-style street performances was going on. Across the road from here are a series of alleyways where you can find every type of restaurant and bar from Georgian to Thai to the omnipresent Irish pub. We settled on an extravagant establishment called Blackberry, decorated with gaudy chandeliers and plush purple thrones, choosing a round table set for eight. Yes, this was a bit of a ridiculous place to choose and the décor not “traditionally Georgian”, but if you can’t go a bit wild on your holidays when can you? I enjoyed my first Adjaruli khachapuri, perhaps the most photographed Georgian dish, involving of a boat of dough filled with melted cheese and a gooey egg smothered in butter and baked. It was indeed as warm and comforting as it sounds. The country is famous as one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the world, so I washed down my khachapuri with a very pleasant glass of Georgian white called Mtsvane. Blackberry also provides several varieties of shisha, so after your meal you can lounge around smoking and listening to the acoustic singer they have perched in the middle of the restaurant. Sinking deeper into my audacious velvet throne, I felt more relaxed than I had done all year.
Although on a steep hill, Tbilisi’s old town area is nice and compact so can be explored in a day. I would recommend trekking up the hill to the fortress then sitting directly under a large statue called Mother Georgia (you definitely won’t miss it) and admiring the view. There is also a modern cable car which takes you there and back if you’re feeling lazy. Avoid the conmen at the top of the hill who reel punters in with doped exotic animals then charge for the small pleasure of holding one. If you’re feeling weary from traipsing around, the best place to wind down is one of the city’s many sulphur spas. The most touristy and impressive looking is probably Abanotubani, but we headed for the slightly shabbier Gulo’s, where you can hire a private room for 20 lari ($7.70) an hour. A woman hands you a towel and flip flops, then you are left to your own devices in what is essentially a big smelly bathroom. We sunk into a large tub of scolding water, fully immersing ourselves in that unavoidable rotten egg stench before jumping under an ice cold shower and repeating. Would I go back and do it again? I’m not sure but, interestingly, the odour reappeared in my urine for the next 24 hours, so that was an experience in itself.
The lazy man’s way up.
A not-so-flattering angle of Mother Georgia.
A young friend made in the Old Town.
The following morning (my 24th birthday) we had planned to visit the stunning mountain village of Kazbegi, however the rain and snow were so heavy and constant that we were sadly forced to call it off and scrabble around on Booking.com for some last-minute accommodation. This led us through some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced to a bizarre ground floor apartment in the Marjanishvili area. A lady showed us round the main room and facilities which were nice enough, but neglected to explain anything about a mysterious flight of stairs leading down from the kitchen. Upon further investigation, I discovered it was in fact a dungeon, complete with hooks hanging from the ceiling and fur hanging from the walls. Why she chose not to inform us we’d be sleeping above an actual dungeon remains a mystery. The heavy rain then caused a power-cut, so I spent a memorable and weirdly pleasant birthday in dusky grey light playing card games, accompanied by the numerous flies that had decided to shelter with us.
My extended period in Tbilisi was soundtracked by a range of artists from Mike Posner to G.R.L. to Sade. The main album I had on the go, however, was Miley Cyrus’ Younger Now – the “I’m actually sensible” follow-up to her rollercoaster repertoire, the unavoidable Bangerz (2013) and the uncomfortably disturbing Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz (2015). I’m still trying to work out whether her notorious “antics” of 2013/2014 really were a personal act of rebellion, or an executive money-making decision made by RCA Records and her manager Larry Rudolph. Yes, she has indeed calmed down now and delivered an impressively mature and contemplative sixth album.
Younger Now replaces wrecking balls, shock haircuts and the brand-new art of twerking with wildflower meadows, rainbows and Dolly Parton. Week Without You, Miss You so Much and I Would Die For You seem to be about the realisation period at the end of a breakup, focusing on regrowth, dreams, the future and all manner of other wishy washy yet important topics. In Thinkin’, Miley ups the tempo and employs a classic Nashville twang, clearly influence by her godmother, Dolly Parton, who chimes in halfway through the album for a feature on the jaunty Rainbowland. The song begins and ends with a bizarre WhatsApp voice note from the country legend herself. I don’t really understand why Miley chose to put this in, but I suppose who wouldn’t show off about getting messages from THE Dolly Parton? Lead single, Malibu, takes a pensive and wistful look back at the places she grew up, while the album’s closer, Inspired, carries along this theme, lamenting the worrying environmental situation we find ourselves in. The last line of the album poses the age-old theological question “Is anyone watching us up there?”, which is quite a leap considering the last line of her previous album was “Fuck yeah”. For me, the strongest track is the opener, Younger Now, a steady-paced introspection on the many peaks and troughs of growing up. It is the perfect song if, like Kylie Jenner in 2016, you’re at a point of realisation in life. With the iconic tongue poses of 2013 a distant memory, Miley’s sixth studio album is a new direction, and likely more authentic to the person she actually is. But I can’t help thinking… is it not just record label fluff to go alongside her much better (and also gothy) younger sister, Noah Cyrus’, rising pop career?
“Another spirit was rolled out along with some slices of green apple, but by that point I was too plastered to remember what it was.”
A lot of people have asked me why I chose to visit Georgia – a little-known country over 2000 miles away from home, sandwiched between Russia and Turkey. Its remoteness was certainly appealing; direct flights from London were only chartered this year, so after reading about the stunning mountain scenery, the warm hospitable people and the famously satisfying cuisine, I wanted to experience it for myself. Georgia is a country still working to shed its Soviet influence after nearly seventy years of USSR control and, as recently as 2008, it was in a state of war with Russia over the disputed South Ossetia region. Tensions with Russia are still high and the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are still no-go areas, but the country looks positively towards the future, with increased tourism steadily revealing the delights of this unique and ancient Caucasus nation.
Our first view of Kutaisi.
Thanks to Wizzair, Ryanair’s exotic Hungarian cousin, we were able to fly return from Luton to Kutaisi, in Western Georgia, for around £200. Arriving at 3am, my friend and I were put in a transfer car with a friendly Russian couple and delivered to our accommodation close to the centre, the Hotel Balcony. To me there is nothing more thrilling than arriving in a new country late at night, knowing that the next day you will wake up and head outside with no idea what to expect.
In the morning, we headed straight up to the hotel’s terrace and stared around at a very green urban landscape with a line of mountains in the distance, framed by a perfect blue sky. I sent a photo of the scene to my Dad, to which he responded with an image of Leeds in the rain. It felt good to be so far away from home for the first time this year. Walking down the street in the sun was like being on a film set, and I was hit with a strange sense of euphoria.
Our aim for the day was to visit the Okatse Canyon and Kinchkha Waterfall, around half an hour out of the city on the edge of the Caucasus Mountain range, so we set about looking for Tourist Information. The Russian couple in the car had warned us that for pedestrians in Georgia there is no “waiting to cross”; you just have to march out and vehicles are expected to stop for you. We chose a pretty stupid place by anyone’s standards – a wide five-pronged roundabout surrounding a large ornate fountain in the very centre of Kutaisi. The initial shock of risking death to cross a road soon wore off, and within hours we were swaggering out and smirking at the mild congestion we had caused.
Tourist Information is located in a picturesque spot overlooking the wide Rioni River, with a view of the Bagrati Cathedral and Kutaisi’s famous White Bridge – at one point known as the border between Europe and Asia. After arranging a taxi at the desk, the woman who booked it took us out onto a balcony facing the river and we chatted about international perceptions of both Georgia and the UK. Her view of the British is that we are all very polite and genteel, so I presumed she’d never had to get the evening train home after a Leeds game. She feels that people only ever hear about Georgia when the news is bad – such as with the 2008 war or the 2015 floods in Tbilisi. From my experience, Georgia seems bizarrely unheard of in Britain, as most people either had no idea of its existence or assumed I was going to the US state.
The Rioni River.
The taxi, when it finally arrived, took us on a flat road through lush farmland, pausing on multiple occasions for rogue cows or pigs. The mountain ascent came very suddenly, and before long we were at a visitor’s centre in the village of Zeda Gordi, being bundled into a Jeep for the last bumpy stretch towards the canyon. Emerging from a wooded area, we reached an expanse of land surrounded by peaks and were told to follow the path down a steep flight of steps. The 100-metre deep Okatse Canyon has only been accessible since 2014, when a scarily narrow walkway was built running alongside the cliff edge. This excursion is probably not for the faint-hearted, as you can feel the walkway shake while you walk along it and there is no hiding from the Looney Tunes-esque drop directly below. It is well worth the trip out of Kutaisi however, as the view across the forested hills is stunning.
For an extra 20 lari (around £6) our driver took us further on from Zeda Gordi to the impressive Kinchkha Waterfall, a vast rock face with a narrow but powerful jet of water overlooking the valley. We were lucky enough to arrive at sunset so the driver joined us on a short walk from the carpark, clearly bemused by our incessant photo-taking as we updated our Snapchat and Instagram stories, got a few for the Camera Roll and even more on the Nikon at various angles and settings.
At the visitor’s centre near Zeda Gordi.
The Hotel Balcony is a newly furnished family-run place near the synagogue, on the east side of Kutaisi. The proprietor, a lady called Teo, and her niece, Anie, made us feel so welcome. On returning from the waterfall we told them we were going to have a drink, so Anie asked if we’d like to try some chocolate flavoured brandy. An ornate blue bottle was produced along with a plate of bread. In Georgia, as with other Eastern European countries, liqueur is enjoyed neat, often accompanied by a small piece of food to soak it up. We were then offered chacha, a homebrewed grape vodka and Georgia’s national drink, with which Teo brought out a plate of creamy imeruli cheese local to Kutaisi. After that, another spirit was rolled out along with some slices of green apple, but by that point I was too plastered to remember what it was.
My friend, deciding it was now time to show the Georgians how we drink our booze in the UK, dashed upstairs and remerged with some Grey Goose and a bottle of Sprite. They were both bemused at the idea of mixing a spirit with a soft drink, and Anie asked if she was supposed to down it all in one, which we kindly stopped her from doing. After a barefoot tour of the vines outside the hotel, we sat eating freshly picked grapes and had a cross-cultured YouTube sesh (I am aware of how dickish this sounds). Like many teenagers, Anie is a huge fan of Beyoncé & Jay-Z, and we bonded over our mutual obsession with Lana Del Rey. She introduced us to the Georgian poet and songwriter Irakli Charkviani, and we watched a few videos by Trio Mandili – a group of young women who have had huge international success on YouTube with their polyphonic renditions of traditional Georgian songs.
At around 1am, Teo and Anie said their goodnights. The fact that our first day here had ended with a Georgian style piss-up certainly boded well for the rest of the trip. My friend, by this point a drunken mess because he had not eaten enough bread with his chacha, rolled into bed muttering nonsense. With the three-hour time difference still playing with my head, I lay awake for a while listening to US singer Jhené Aiko’s second solo album, Trip, which had been released the previous week. Aiko has been known for her dreamy style of RnB for most of the 10s, but became a household name in 2015 after declaring that “you gotta eat the booty like groceries” on the summer smash hit Post To Be with Omarion and Chris Brown. Trip takes an introspective and darker turn away from mainstream RnB. You don’t even have to listen to the album to guess whom the intended audience could be. The psychedelic artwork paired with track names such as Overstimulated, Sativa and Mystic Journey – Freestyle, suggest that Georgian grape vodka might not be the drug of choice for optimum listening pleasure. I was, however, in a hazy frame of mind from all the travelling, and the hypnotic rise and fall of the album’s beat was ideal for bedtime listening.
Buddhist prayer chimes seem to play a key role on this mystical web of a record, gliding in right from the start in the short opener, LSD, and reappearing throughout in reprises and interludes. Each track on the album feels intertwined, webbed together lyrically and melodically by her distinctive lilting voice so that you can listen to it on shuffle and have a different musical journey every time without it jarring. The main single, While We’re Young, is deeply intimate and describes the realisation that she only wants to be with one person. It manages to be a catchy single in its own right but incorporates the atmospheric echo sound used across the rest of the album. The subject is presumably Big Sean, whose face she now has tattooed on her arm. Indeed, Sean pops up on the following two tracks – Moments and OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive) – with his usual slickly produced flow. One of the catchiest songs is Sing To Me which features Aiko’s daughter in a now common move made popular by Beyoncé.
The album falls into trancelike repetitiveness throughout You Are Here and Nobody, but is broken by Bad Trip – Interlude, an unpleasant number involving screaming, which led me to realise that Trip has a clear narrative arc like a film. Every song seems laced with double meaning and spiritual hidden messages. Like a lot of material released this year, Oblivion (Creation) addresses the awful state of affairs the world is in at the moment, bluntly opening with the line “the world’s a fucking mess, it’s gone to shit and I am every bit a part of it”. I’ve always found it fascinating how current affairs can be mirrored by the world of music, from Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ in 1964 to Jay Sean and Lil Wayne being Down “like the economy” in 2008.
Trip is a powerful and intelligent record that no doubt will rise slowly in popularity. On first hearing it, I felt it could end up being this year’s Anti. It’s not there yet, as with 22 complex tracks, it hasn’t quite seeped into my psyche as much as Anti did. I’m not saying you have to be in the middle of a three-day hallucinogenic bender to fully appreciate it, but Trip is what it says on the tin – trippy. Listening to it is like entering a mystical forest, so in my day-to-day life I can’t always be bothered to summon up the effort. It requires commitment, and shouldn’t be mistaken for background music, which is what makes it such good quality. I’m sure I’ll revisit it at some spiritual moment in the future, but by this point Jhené was sending me to sleep and my mind was moving on to the next stage of our real-life trip: Tbilisi.