View from Vitalia: Of bars, bikes and bruises
Why it can be advisable to accept some challenging offers and invitations.
How do you judge the efficiency, the efficacy (what a horrible tongue-twister), or, in plain English, the popularity, of a column or a blog? The most important criterion here is of course the readers’ feedback. In this respect, my most popular column ever was ‘Vitali on Monday’ for the Melbourne Age in 1990-92, for it used to generate up to a hundred readers’ letters every day.
A number of those letters, as I remember, were rather peculiar; many contained food items (for some obscure reason, my correspondents believed that anyone who came from the Soviet Union had to be permanently hungry): biscuits, sausages and numerous tins of Vegemite. A generous reader from Sydney once sent me a large crate of ... raw kangaroo meat, the consumption of which was then illegal in New South Wales, but not in Victoria!
Eventually, I had to plead to the readers of my column to stop sending me food, for I was already overweight (it was hard not to be in that plentiful and hedonistic part of the world) and didn’t look forward to the dubious honour of receiving a nutritional OBE – my own euphemism for obesity.
Another sure sign of a column’s (or blog’s) success is the number of invites to all kinds of functions: openings, closures, tastings, demonstrations and so on. Again, looking back at my years in Australia, I remember being asked to close an international gathering of architects, to open an annual conference of ... Victoria’s pest controllers and to take part in a ‘celebrity race’ from one pub to another, with a tinny (a can of beer in Strine) in your hand. I accepted the former, but refused the latter. Mind you, had the race involved a vodka shot instead of a ‘tinny’, I would have probably accepted.
Looking at ‘View from Vitalia’ (VfV), which has just marked its nine-month ‘anniversary’, it still has a lot of catching up to do to reach the same level of popularity as ‘Vitali on Monday’, or my monthly ‘After All’ column for E&T magazine. There are signs, however, that it may be getting there – slowly but (as I want to hope) surely.
To begin with, unlike ‘Vitali on Monday’ whose readership was almost 100 per cent Australian, VfV keeps receiving feedback from a number of countries in Europe (which so far include the UK) and from the USA and Australia too. Secondly, some time ago VfV – encouragingly – started receiving invites to dos and functions, many of which I was happy to accept. Today, I want to share my impressions of some of them.
Among the first to hit my omnivorous email box was a kindly and witty message from a PR person of Wilde Aparthotels chain, which I described in a previous VfV as a misnomer, for, to my knowledge, Oscar Wilde’s only widely (and Wilde-ly) -known association with hotels was that he actually died in one. The efficient and entrepreneurial PR lady invited me to have a closer look at one of their new hotels, which I did briefly and was very impressed by its practicality and its unexpected technological sophistication – well ahead of the well-known Hi chain of techno hotels, which I once reviewed in E&T magazine. It reminded me of my brief stay in one of the super-practical ‘Unites d’Habitation’ of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City in Marseille (https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2015/09/le-corbusiers-vertical-city-in-marseille/) and of my recent trip to South Korea, with its famously high-tech hotel conveniences. To my relief, however, unlike in Seoul hotels, Wilde Apartments did not have electronic button-operated toilets (with buttons to activate such scary functions as ‘hot wash’ and ‘enema’) which led to a couple of embarrassing near-accidents.
In short, so impressed I was by the Wilde Apartments’ state-of-the art futuristic technology, modernity and practicality that I am now planning to describe them in greater detail in one of my future ‘After All’ columns for E&T.
Another recent invite was probably due to frequent mentions of drinks and drink-making technologies in my previous VfVs. Or, possibly, it was a belated response to the one-off column on graffiti that I once contributed to the Big Issue magazine... It was for the ‘launch’ of a new London bar – “a graffiti-themed pop-up”, with a restored artwork by Banksy known as ‘Giant Rat’ (the artwork, not Banksy) no less! The new venue was inside the so-called ‘graffiti gallery’ in the tunnel underneath the former railway arches in Leake Street near Waterloo Station – a mysterious and all-but-forgotten area that was familiar to me only due to the excellent Ian Allan transport bookshop in Lower Marsh. I was pleased to learn about the ongoing redevelopment of the otherwise wasted public spaces beneath Waterloo station, of which the Rat Bar (as it is called) is just the first step. As for the general ‘ratty’ theme of the bar, as someone who survived (and outlived) the hapless North London rat trapped in my toilet (which – unfortunately for that occasion – was not equipped with any Seoul-style ‘hot wash’ and ‘enema’ buttons), I had no problem with it at all and, in fact, rather enjoyed its new signature cocktails ‘El Raton’, ‘Black Death’ and – particularly – ‘You Dirty Double Crossing Rat’ (not to be taken too personally).
Rats and rattiness aside, the most substantial invite (this time, not so much to VfV as to me personally) came from Switzerland Tourism, which offered me the chance to take part in a trip called ‘Valais Vineyards on Wheels and E-biking in the Mountains’, which, as I correctly deduced, was not about vineyards on wheels, but about cycling first along the so-called ‘Valais Vineyard Path’ and then e-biking in the Alps (for those who may not know, Valais is a predominantly French-speaking canton in south-western Switzerland). My first reaction was disbelief: how could they offer a trip like that to someone who only a year ago underwent a massive open-heart surgery? The obvious answer to that was that they didn’t know about the operation. But I did.
Out of sheer puzzlement, I phoned my trusted cardiologist and told him about the invite. “You know what,” he replied. “A bit of e-biking therapy may be just what you need to keep you firmly on the recovery path.” He went on to explain that, contrary to what many people think, some strenuous exercise – and cycling in particular – is essential in healing the patched-up heart. “Your main enemies are immobility and stress,” he said. “Believe me, in your situation, heart failure and other cardiological episodes are much more likely to result from a domestic quarrel, being stuck in a traffic jam or too much pressure at work than from open-air cycling.”
He then emailed me useful links to the website of the British Heart Foundation and other respectable sources – all stating in chorus that, according to a British Medical Association study and other surveys, riding a bicycle for at least 20 miles a week lessened the risk of coronary heart disease by almost 50 per cent; that mountain biking, in particular, increased heart fitness by 3-7 per cent, and so on. That was all very good, but how about someone like me, who has already undergone a heart valve replacement?
In my cardiologist’s email, there was also a link to the Heart Foundation of New Zealand website, with the article ‘New Heart Valve Keeps Pete Cycling’ – all about a middle-aged chap called Pete who celebrated the 10th anniversary of his valve replacement surgery with a 101km cycle ride and “a post-race drink” (sic) with his former medical team. It was not so much the ride itself as the “post-race drink” that influenced my decision to accept the invitation.
Looking back now, I can say that those three days of mountain cycling in Valais were among the hardest in my life. They were also among the most satisfying and fulfilling ones. To recount them in detail would take too much time and space, so I will resort to my favourite ‘laundry list’ technique (in no particular order):
E-bikes ridden – 4
Kilometres covered – about 100
Maximum altitude reached – 2000 m
Falls – 14
Bad falls – 2
Scratches and bruises – 27
Stunning views observed – 79
Vineyards visited – 4
Glasses of red wine drunk (to restore the red blood cell count depleted by the altitude – why else?) - 10
Cheese factories visited - 1
Steep climbs – 31
Steep descents – 31
Cow fights watched - 17 (watching Herens cows fight is a popular sport in Valais; more about it and other peculiar sports and technologies of the area in a future ‘After All’ column)
Sweat shed (in litres) – 7.5
Brake failures - 1
Portions of rosti consumed – 2
Portions of fondue consumed – 0 (I don’t like fondues)
Moments of fear – 79
Moments of joy and exhilaration – 110
On a couple of occasions: while negotiating particularly steep near-vertical slopes, when not even the ‘high’ or ‘turbo’ modes of my e-bike were of any help whatsoever; or while sliding slowly down (as any hardened mountaineer would tell you, descending is always much harder than climbing up) the seemingly endless narrow mountain path, with precipices on both sides and with my right brake suddenly failing, I was close to aborting the adventure and walking down (or up) the mountain pushing (or pulling) my bike by the handles – indeed like a stubborn cow by the horns, even if took me a couple of weeks. To be completely honest, it was not stamina that made me carry on, but simple realisation that e-bikes, albeit much lighter now (and with much smaller batteries) than several years ago, were still heavy, and pushing/pulling one up or down the mountain would be like trying to steer an obstinate Herens fighting cow by the horns and would probably take much more effort than cycling itself.
Treating my fresh scratches and bruises in Verbier – the Alpine village where the adventure ended – with some quick-acting Swiss sprays and ointments making the wounds heal right in front of my eyes, I felt hugely proud of myself. I could now say to everyone who branded me foolhardy and plain crazy (and they included some of my friends and family): e-biking therapy works!
Now, a smooth – like an e-bike ride along a flat Alpine meadow – change of topic. Continuing to introduce you to some of the entries (in my thorough translations from Russian) of the spectacular and hard-to-obtain ‘Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the History of Soviet Everyday Life’ (Moscow, 2015). The most relevant word for today’s blog is of course ‘bicycle’, or in Russian veloseeped. What can be particularly ‘Soviet’ about it, you may ask? Well, velo-see for yourselves:
“... After the Russian revolution (the Bolshevik coup d’etat of 1917 – VV), bicycles became luxury items for the majority of the Soviet population, despite their alleged mass production (of bicycles, not the population, or so I hope – VV)... In the Red Army, there appeared infantry units on bicycles, the so-called samokatchiki (self-rollers), albeit in rather small numbers... In 1925, the official registration of all bicycles commenced... Until the mid-1950s, all privately owned bicycles were subject to compulsory mobilisation for the needs of the army during war time, so their registration was obligatory, and the registration number was to be attached to the bicycle frame. That number was to be renewed each year, and the cost of such annual registration renewal was 15 roubles. In common speak, particularly among boys, ‘veloseeped’ was often called affectionately ‘velik’.”
True. I will never forget my very first – and last - Soviet ‘velik’: a squeaky three-wheel contraption bought by my parents for my 7th (or 6th) birthday. I used to dash about on it like crazy. Luckily, there were no mountains in the Ukrainian city where I then lived.
I’d like to finish with a story I heard the other day while attending (on yet another VfV invite!) the Bellavita Italian Trade Show at London’s Business Design Centre. A renowned pizza chef from Naples briefly addressed the visitors prior to a demonstration of his pizza-making technologies and skills. He recalled conducting a similar demonstration for US government representatives in Washington DC some time ago. At the end of it, one senior US official thanked the chef and then asked: “Tell me, buddy, how do you say ‘pizza’ in Italian?”
I have a horrible feeling that the official in question had a mane of yellowish sandy hair resembling an abandoned bird’s nest...