View from Vitalia: Of distances, dreams and white pants

It is often hard to decide what makes a city or a country not only ‘liveable’, but also loveable

At times, I regret leaving Melbourne – the Australian metropolis which this year came second in the Economist’s annual list of the world’s most liveable cities (prior to that, Melbourne had topped the list for seven years in a row!), published this week. Having lived in the capital of Victoria for a number of years in the 1990s, I can testify to its truly amazing liveability, cosiness and homeliness.

Melbourne is prosperous and laid back, with clean and safe streets, good public transport and great restaurants. In a frequently recounted anecdote, an American tourist once flagged down a Melbourne cab and asked the driver to take him to a slum area. The driver started the engine but pulled over in a minute or so. “Sorry, mate, but I don’t know where to take you to,” he said. “We don’t have slums here...”

Indeed, the first aerial view of Melbourne the moment your plane dives out of the clouds above the Tullamarine International Airport will be dominated by countless blue sockets of privately owned swimming pools – part and parcel of Australia’s typical urban sprawl which once prompted Alan Coren to refer to any sizeable Australian city as “a suburb without an urb”.  

To paraphrase Henry Ford’s famous cliché, in Melbourne, a swimming pool is not a luxury, but just a means of cooling down its owners – a human fridge of sorts.

I also had a 20m-long swimming pool (with a Jacuzzi) when living there. It couldn’t be seen from the air, however, for one simple reason: it was indoors...  

The only major drawback in Melbourne was – and still is – “the tyranny of distance”, a phrase coined by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey. In the pre-internet and pre-satellite communications epoch, I often felt isolated and cut off there and, at times, even thought that, having settled Down Under after defecting from the Soviet Union, I have inadvertently swapped one Iron Curtain, made of political dogmas, to another – made of dollars, for travelling regularly to Europe (and I could not imagine my life without frequent visits to my ‘home continent’) cost an absolute fortune. And the indoor swimming pool was of little help to that growing spiritual heartburn, also known as nostalgia...  

In certain ways, the dollar-made Iron Curtain was probably more impregnable than the dogma-made one, for the latter could be rammed through by a truck, or flown over in a home-made balloon (as shown by a number of East German defectors to West Berlin and West Germany), whereas the former could only succumb to the power of the Mammon.

Significantly, unlike the dogma-made Wall, which collapsed in 1989/1990, the Mammon-made one is still in place in Australia, albeit the advent of the internet has made it somewhat more porous, so to speak. It will only collapse when (and if) Elon Musk, or some other billionaire entrepreneur, finds enough dosh to secure a Hyperloop connection with Europe and America, making it possible to get to Oz (and from it) in under an hour, which at the moment still sounds like a dream.

Please forgive me for touching upon this subject again, but the ongoing railway crisis in the UK, apart from costing us all lots of time, money and nervous energy, is slowly but surely creating some Iron Curtain-like barriers in the British society, for what is it but a manifestation of the above-mentioned “tyranny of distance” when it routinely takes over two hours to negotiate by train the 30-odd miles separating some commuter towns from London?

And, to crown it all, they have just announced that the fares would rise by 3.5 per cent next year – a truly cynical development, which doesn’t worry me too much for one simple reason: if the railway nightmare continues at the same pace (and there are no reason or signs to suggest that it won’t), there won’t be any functioning trains left in the UK: they will all get either cancelled or indefinitely delayed – and therefore the fares will gradually die away too!

You may have noticed that when criticising British railways I often bring in Switzerland as a shining beacon of order and punctuality. In one of my ‘After All’ columns a couple of years ago, I tried to explain what makes SBB (Swiss national railways) tick. Two things: 1. A comprehensive set-in-stone timetable, which gets compiled four years ahead of schedule and gets tested twice before it becomes operational. 2. An article in the Swiss Constitution which guarantees on-time train services for all the citizens as one of their essential human rights, so whenever a train is delayed,which doesn’t happen often, the incident can be rightly regarded as violation of the country’s main law.

Sounds a bit excessive, doesn’t it? It shouldn’t, though, if we remember that delayed trains steal our most precious possession – time; read: lives. It wouldn’t be a huge exaggeration, therefore, to classify delayed and cancelled trains as a form of murder.

Alas, Magna Carta, Britain’s only equivalent of a Constitution, was put together long before the railway age, and its text – being sacrosanct – cannot be amended. But even if it could, I don’t think it would have made a huge difference.

The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that there are several areas in which Britain – for reasons which are hard to pinpoint – is simply unable, or possibly unwilling, to excel: trains, international football, clean streets, roads and public toilets, manufacturing of anything, except perhaps for vacuum cleaners, and so on... Interestingly, in some of those areas, like, say, railways, manufacturing and international football, this country was one of the successful global pioneers while still an empire, but has since somewhat lost the knack. As well as the plot.

On the other hand, there are areas in which Britain remains successful and can even be called the world leader: ales, cider, high teas, Cornish pasties... And, I nearly forgot: vacuum cleaners, of course!

What else? League football, tabloid newspapers, spy thrillers... that’s about it, I guess. Nothing we can do about it, I am afraid.

Everyone has his or her own ‘most liveable’ (read dream-like) country or city. For me, like for many of my Soviet compatriots, it used to be Paris. Locked up forever, or so it seemed, in the world’s largest cage of the former USSR, we perceived Paris as not just a city, not just the capital of France brimming with paintings, sculpture and architectural masterpieces, but also as a symbol of Western freedom, an archetype of real-life romanticism and wonderful indulgences, a cornucopia of sweet anti-Soviet decadence.

An old tattered map of Paris was the pride of my small, yet ever-growing, collection of guide-books, atlases and train timetables. I would stare at it until my eyes started hurting, and I was able to discern behind the threadbare paper the outlines of the Eiffel Tower and smell the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee in the Champs Elysees. In a self-induced dream-like trance I could easily walk, with my eyes shut, from Saint-Germain-des-Pres on the Left Bank to Montmartre.

No wonder, then, on my first ever visit there at the age of 37, I found Paris recognisable and almost familiar – the city that, however, worked better as a dream than a real-life human conurbation, and was perhaps somewhat less ‘liveable’ than I had expected it to be.

That Paris obsession of mine was similar to what my favourite literary hero Ostap Bender – the “smooth operator” from Ilf and Petrov’s satirical novel The Golden Calf – must have felt about Rio de Janeiro: “Can you imagine that, Shura?... The mulattos, the bay, coffee export... A million and a half people, all of them wearing white pants, without exception...”

Those mythical “white pants” – the symbol of extreme ‘liveability’ in the early 1930s Soviet Union – must have been totally irresistible. And when Shura Balaganov, Ostap’s hapless interlocutor and buddy, having listened with his mouth agape to the above diatribe, says: “But what about Rio de Janeiro? I want white pants too,” Ostap mercilessly rebuffs him: “Rio de Janeiro is the cherished dream of my youth [just like Paris was of mine? – VV]... keep your paws off it!”

Coming back to this year’s best (or most liveable) city, I was surprised that my second-favourite metropolis in Europe (after London) – Amsterdam – hasn’t made it to the first ten. It came 12th – not so bad if compared to London’s shameful 48th place, but still far behind the winner – Vienna.

I suspect the Dutch capital’s notorious 'Coffeeshops' (as opposed to ordinary coffee shops) may be partly at fault. I’ll never forget how on my very first visit to Amsterdam, I naively asked for a cup of coffee in one of those ‘Coffeeshops’. You should have seen the facial expression of the man behind the counter. You are likely to get a similar look if you ask for a kilo of rusty nails in Harrods.

He did make me a cup of coffee in the end, but it was by far the worst cuppa of my life: weak, lukewarm and reeking of cannabis…

But I’ve digressed.

If it were up to me, I’d have definitely upgraded Amsterdam. Not just because of its traditional tourist attractions: tulips, canals, gabled houses and the Red Light District – but due to its new suburbs not very familiar to an accidental tourist. I stayed in a modern housing block, overlooking the Amstel River, in one of them – Sparkeleweg – last month.

Well, the terms ‘housing block’ or ‘a block of flats’ do little to describe this masterpiece of modern architecture, with its frescoed façade, high ceilings, huge balconies and windows facing the beach. Inside, its open-plan apartments were full of space, light and air. The neighbouring residential ‘blocks’ (one of which was made up of several dozen multi-coloured ship containers, Lego-like!) had similar interiors, yet the exterior of each was architecturally different and unique.

The houses were surrounded by patches of forest, swarming with birds and other wildlife, and the whole neighbourhood was encircled by and criss-crossed with multiple cycle paths – like everywhere else in Amsterdam, there were many more cyclists in sight than pedestrians. The latter, including yours truly, often had to seek shelter behind trees to avoid being run over by the former – young, good-looking and centaur-like, without exception.  

All necessary shops and restaurants were within easy reach as well as the river, the beach, the forest and the Metro station, with frequent – clean, air-conditioned and invariably semi-empty – trains to the city centre, only 12 minutes away.

But the thing that struck me most was the extreme, bordering on sterile, cleanliness of the neighbourhood area. Not a single piece of rubbish could be spotted anywhere. It appeared as if one could safely eat off the surfaces of all those cycling paths and children’s playgrounds.

No wonder that the residents of the ‘block’, in which I stayed, would often get together for an evening meal in the courtyard on a warm summer evening. They didn’t eat off the ground, of course (albeit they could if they wanted to), but off one railway-platform-long makeshift table sagging under the dishes they had themselves cooked. There was a wonderful atmosphere of kindness and camaraderie (not in the Soviet sense of this word) around the table, and I was tempted to join in but didn’t want to gate-crash.

I was also worried that mixing with all those lovely hospitable people in that perfectly ‘liveable’ city environment would make me too attached to Amsterdam and to the Netherlands in general, which would be like cheating on my old and imperfect (with not too many of its residents in white pants), yet inexplicably dear, sweetheart – Britain.  




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