Tiny Travelling Tales: About St George

23 April is St George’s Day. He’s patron saint of a ridiculous number of places, only one of them England, and, having been born in what is now Turkey, the veneration of him by White supremacist English people seems a little ironic.

My last trip abroad was to Athens in 2019, and I fled the UK with Brexit and nationalism and all the usual appeals to St George ringing in my ears.

After a few days of exploring classical ruins, I woke up one morning feeling the strain of all the walking and hill-climbing I’d been doing. Checking the guidebook, I opted to visit Mount Lycabettus, the highest hill in Athens, because various sources assured me there was a funicular railway up and down, so I wouldn’t have to walk.

One-third of the way up Mount Lycabettus, I began to question the existence of this funicular railway.

Halfway up Mount Lycabettus, I discovered the site where Google Maps said it ought to be, and questioned its existence further.

Two-thirds of the way up, I looked up to the top, said to myself, “should I just say I’ve made a good effort at it and go down right now?”

I could see there was a chapel at the top, so I said to myself, “If I can make it to that chapel, I’ll buy an ikon of its patron saint there.”

One-third of the mountain later, I hauled myself on to the plaza, sweating and exhausted and sore of limb, and went over to the chapel to find out who the patron saint was.

It was St George.

And yes, I bought an ikon. Not just to mark the achievement and to support the upkeep of the chapel, but as a nice reminder that he transcends his nationalist following to link the English, whether they like it or not, to Europe and beyond.


Tiny Travelling Tales: Where Not To Go For Ramadan

I’ve visited majority Muslim countries during Ramadan four times now, and, generally speaking, would recommend it.

The standout experience was undoubtedly Istanbul. On my first day, on my first visit to the city, I was walking around the Blue Mosque around four-thirty and noticing that the lawn outside was filling up with families with picnic cloths and baskets, and a small market of food sellers were stealthily firing up their grills. The moment the call to prayer went out at five, a huge cheer went up and, shortly thereafter, everyone set to work.

Other visits, in Izmir and in Singapore, were rather more low-key, but still entertaining. Singapore is a city of multiple religions and one where everybody loves a party, so Ramadan is a time when it becomes harder than usual to book a restaurant, but it’s even more than usually worth it if you do. Izmir had special holiday bread loaves, fireworks at sundown, and a team of young people who would walk through the streets at 5 AM banging a drum to let everyone know the party was over and it was time to go back to fasting.

The one exception in my experience? Surprisingly, Cairo.

I’d booked a trip deliberately during Ramadan of 2010, based on my positive experiences in other majority-Muslim countries, and Cairo’s reputation as a cosmopolitan, cheerful city.

And the place closed the shutters for Ramadan.

Although it’s tempting to put it down to this being 2010, less than six months before the revolution kicked off, the reaction of local people was that this was normal. Everything shut for Ramadan; this was just what one did.

On the positive side, the Coptic establishments all opened up in the evenings, which led to some very exciting culinary experiences, including the best Hongkongnese food made by a non-Hongkongnese that I’ve ever had, and the discovery that Egypt, one of the inventors of beer nine thousand years ago, has definitely kept up the brewing tradition in the meantime.

But if I get to travel during Ramadan again, I’m going to Istanbul.

Tiny Travel Tales: The Globetrotting Suitcase

One summer, I arrived in Milan to discover that I’d travelled to Milan Malpensa Airport and my suitcase to Milan Linate Airport. The case could not be transported across town from the one to the other because it had not been checked out. As I had, however, passed through security, I could not go to Milan Linate and physically retrieve my bag. So close, and yet separated by an invisible, intangible barrier, no less powerful because it did not actually exist.

On the one hand: disaster! I was meant to attend a conference at STA Bocconi the next day, and had only a T-shirt and jeans to do it in. On the other: even on a budget, there is no better place to need to do emergency clothes shopping than the fashion capital of Italy, and therefore the world.

In the end, the airline returned it to my address in Oxford, via Moscow and Helsinki (according to the stickers on the bag). Since I had spent the week alternating between trying to get a job at a busy Academy conference, and trying to sleep in a residence room that overlooked a busy street, I think my suitcase had a better time than I did.

And the suit I panic-bought at a discount fashion emporium down the road from STA Bocconi is still hanging in my closet, emerging periodically for formal-dress occasions.