Convinced I was destined to become an oil painter, I attended art school, and during my art f*g days, I honed in on art museums, wherever I went. As a writer, however, I quickly realized I needed to scrutinize the streets, for even without people, a community reveals much about itself through its houses, shops, and how these are laid out.
A few hours roaming the alleys of Naples, for example, will teach you more about Neapolitans than the same amount of time at its archeological museum, though of course, you should also check out the astonishing Farnese Bull, with its matchless ensemble of humans and animals, carved from a singled block of marble, with everything perfect, even the bull's well-articulated a**hole. Now, that's artistic piety!
The Japanese hate trash on the streets so much, they don't even have garbage cans on sidewalks, for you're not supposed to do anything in public to generate trash in the first place, no eating while walking, no smoking even. In Germany, public toilet stalls often have scrubbers, so that you can clean up after yourself if necessary. In Thailand, car horns are rarely heard, but in Vietnam, the beep beeping from motorbikes has become part of the white noise.
I just got back from a week in Malaysia, where I spent each waking minute on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Penang, Kajang, Ipoh, Bidor or Tai Ping. (Johor Bahru I had glimpsed on another visit.) I spent much of my time with John Tang, a 73-year-old structural engineer with an architect wife. Together, we read buildings.
"I didn't like it, so I came back here. I missed the food!" We were sitting at Fun Kee Bamboo Noodle, a Cantonese joint John had eaten at for over four decades.
"And it's not just the food, but the ambience," I added. "Just look at this place!" Old school, it had worn marble tables, white tiled walls and a small plastic sign advising customers not to spit.
"That waitress is married to the owner's son," John pointed. "She's Indonesian. I know her mom, too. She worked here for 25 years."
"Is she still here?"
"No, she went back to Indonesia."
Behind the cash register, there was a small, glass paned bookcase with volumes by Ishiguro, Alice Munro, Roald Dahl, O Henry, D.H. Lawrence, Dostoyevsky, Narayan, Art Buchwald, Sting and Woody Allen, etc. There were also several books on Lee Kuan Yew. A small blackboard featured a quote of the day, such as, "BOOKS AND NOODLES KEEP ME ALIVE!"
Though busy, the owner dropped by to say hello, and was delighted to have a visitor from Vietnam. I told him I liked his books, and John said I was a writer. On our second visit a few days later, the bespectacled man refused to charge us for our meals!
Whether by malice or just sheer incompetence, Malaysia is comprehensively marred by bad planning decisions, but you wouldn't know this from afar, for the Kuala Lumpur skyline, with its Petronas Towers and other iconic buildings, simply looks marvelous in photographs.
Consider the Jamek Mosque. Designed by an English architect, Arthur Benison Hubback (1871-1948), it's one of the most beautiful in a country dotted with ugly, soulless mosques, many of which resemble tacky casinos or even strip malls. Built at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers, it's best viewed from a bridge on Leboh Pasar Besar, but even this vista is blighted by "KUALA LUMPUR" in big, bright yellow lettering, spelled out for the tourists, I suppose, just in case they forget where they are.