September 30, 2012

End of the journey and the blog: from European cafes to kindle?

This is my last blog. Tomorrow the academic year starts, I will be back to teaching, and I have promised my employer (and my wife) that I will be travelling much less than in the last two years – during which, even if this blog suggests the opposite, I managed to get something done, like publishing six articles and two books and a half.

Italian breakfastBut I will of course keep a constant eye on Europe, of which Coventry, Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Warsaw, Paris and Berlin are just mis barrios, without order of prefernce. And if I can’t be in all my barrios at the same time, I have at least found a reasonable surrogate for the pleasure of reading the daily papers of each of them, everyday – and it is not the internet, but kindle.

I am quite addicted to newspapers, which I started buying in my early teens, and I keep buying every morning. In any country I am, I have my paper, which is the most important ingredient of my breakfast (you see them listed on the bottom left). Gazeta Wyborcza was what taught me read Polish in 1989-90, and Глас Српске (unlovable but interesting) what taught me to read Cyrillic in 1997. I am so addicted that even in China in 2000, on a crisis of abstinence, I started buying the papers and look at the pictures: the only news I understood was the Concorde crash over Paris. I just need the physical and mental stimulation of holding my daily paper, everyday.

Even if I am formally faithful and never buy a second paper in a given country, I can’resist reading a bit on the side as well – and I have become increasingly attracted to papers from other countries. When I was at the European University Institute in Florence in the 1990s, the loggia overlooking the city was also the reading room for European newspapers (at that time, almost exclusively leftwing ones), and I spent so much time in an armchair there, that fellow researchers said they would put a plate with my name on it. At Warwick, the staff lounge has five daily papers which I always scrutinise, but they are all British, and foreign papers are difficult to get, expensive, and arrive a day late, good only for the chips. Of course, the internet provides 24-hour news in any language, but it is nothing like full immersion in a serious newspaper. Reading the Hamburger Abendblatt with my niece

So this Spring, while in Coventry missing my Le monde in a brasserie, El País over churros and Manifesto over an espresso, I bought a basic kindle and the subscription to a few papers. Since then, when I wake up in the morning El País and Gazeta Wyborcza are already on my bedside table. By the end of breakfast or the time I arrive to work, I have also received the New York Times. And after lunch, it is time for Le monde.I do not subscribe to any German or Italian paper because the kindle choice is too narrow.

The decision wasn’t easy, because I see a lot of problems with Amazon and Kindle. Amazon has been shown to be a tax-avoider, and it is achieving such market domination that it challenges not only retailers (the lovely independent bookshops) but even the freedom of press. This is even truer for e-books: we are giving a single company a virtual monopoly on what is published. Moreover, I am not into gadgets and electronics (I was one of the last citizens of Europe to get a mobile phone and a TV - and I hardly ever use them). Yet I could see some clear strengths in the kindle.

First, unlike computers, tablets and smartphones, it is a full-immersion device: no ads, no emails, no popping windows, no sounds, no junk. Just black-and-white pages, as newspapers used to be, and without backlighting: I sit in front of a computer screen for so long for work, that the last thing I want to read a paper on is on one of them. And it is a kindle's actual advantage that it is very bad for work: pdf files are not reproduced well, and kindle-format books show no pages (how to quote them?), are messy with endnotes, and are difficult to take notes on. But exactly because it can hardly be used for work, it becomes a friendly device to enjoy – reserved to the pleasure of papers and novels. The main advantages, though, are portability (I spent hundreds of Euros in sending home hard books from various corners of Europe, but I could carry a thousand or so on the kindle), wifi instant delivery, and the feel-good factor of not chopping forests to read.

Turkish lifeThe main disadvantage is the narrow choice of papers, This is where you can see the risks of letting a private monopoly select what we can read (the choice is also extremely poor on foreign-language books: kindle is nearly as monolingual as it is monocolour). Also, after having developed over 30 years perfect newspaper-reading skills, these become nearly useless on a little screen and it is much more difficult to spot the good articles just by the titles. Some see a disadvantage in the price of subscriptions: but they are cheaper than from the newsagent, and in any case serious journalism costs and needs to be paid for – free newspapers and internet news are a threat to investigative, independent reporting.

Each of the papers I subscribe to has some disadvantage. El pais is the one with mosttechnical problems (undelivered/late issues) and misses the various interesting supplements (such as Negocios on Monday). Gazeta Wyborcza on kindle is also incomplete. Le monde is more complete but annoyingly its articles indicate the author at the end, rather than under the title: you have to scroll several screens only to see if a comment piece is by somebody you want to read from or not. The New York Times is in my view the best, with more content, pictures and features – the only thing it misses is the word number at the beginning of the article but you can still guess the length of the article from the length of the bar at the bottom of the screen. I subscribed to it because of my planned trip to America in the Summer (and in NYC its local pages were really useful) and because of the election year, but although it is a great paper I will cancel the subscription after the elections: anyway, the best stuff is reproduced in a number of European papers, including Guardian and Le monde.

While I love newspapers, I have never been into magazines: even the serious ones are in the rather useless middle ground between scientific rigour and daily journalism. I do read, caught between admiration for the neat coherent style and irritation for its ideological simplifications, The Economist, but the kindle version is very expensive and the magazine is for free in the staff lounge. The only magazines I subscribed too are therefore The London Review of Books, which needs no introduction, and Tygodnik Powszechny. The latter is the main Catholic magazine in Poland, but an open and surprisingly progressive one in a country where Catholicism is overwhelming reactionary. Founded in 1945 by Jerzy Turowicz in the intellectual capital Kraków and once the only independent paper in communist Poland, it is now directed by Fr Adam Boniecki, former director of the Polish edition of Osservatore Romano, but now a courageous critical priest whom his religious order has forbidden to speak or write, except one article per week in Tygodnik Powszechny. As always, censorship backfires and his articles’s popularity has risen to cult status. The magazine is very strong not just on religion, but also on culture (Nobel Prizes Miłosz and Szymoborska published their verses on it, and the issue on the latter after her death in February had an unmatched depth and intimacy) and on society, in Poland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. Over the summer three issues were dedicated to unemployment, precarious work, and gender inequality. If only the Polish mainstream Left paid the same degree of attention to these issues...

So, for the moment enough Around Europe. But maybe one day I will start Around the World.


September 24, 2012

Portuguese hopes

AlfamaWhen I went to Lisbon in May 2011, just after the country was forced to ask for financial rescue, I had found a depressed mood and people would have voted the conservatives into power a month later, out of lack of alternatives. My 3-week stay this month found a different situation. On Friday the 7th, just before the Portugal World Cup qualifier and at the peak of audience, the prime minister Passos Coelho spoke on TV to announce the latest and most draconian measure: a 7% increase in social security contributions equal to nearly one month of salary per year. Moreover, revealing the distributional effect of austerity policy, employer contribution were cut by 5.75%, as a measure to create jobs – as if employers would then start recruiting, with internal demand collapsing and no sign of a industrial policy.

The day after all bars and local restaurants in Lisbon (those where you can still eat for 5 Euros) had the TV on live economic news and people were watching in silence. But this time something clicked. The following Saturday mass protest demonstration occurred in the whole country (we witnessed those in medieval Evora): between 600,000 and 1m people on the street, which means nearly 10% of the population (think of 4-6m in a country the size of the UK, France or Italy). This Saturday, the government had to withdraw the measure: it is the first clear people’s victory against austerity.

Alentejo

Passos Coelho had been trying to be ‘more troikist than the troika’, in his excess of zeal to show that ‘Portugal is no Greece’. At the same time as Spain was trying to show that it is no Portugal, and Italy that it is no Spain. Southern European solidarity, regrettably, does not exist, and leaves individual countries with no negotiation power with financial institutions. But this government failure may be a turning point: resistance is possible. Let’s see if the national demonstration in the UK next 20th of October will imitate the exploit - although the British government so far has been skillful at picking its targets and fragment resistance, contrary to the Portuguese measure of social contributions increase for all, which angered the whole population at the same time.

And how does Portugal look like in the middle of this? After a lively conference in Lisbon and a few days rest in the Sagres area (the only unspoilt area of Algarve), we crossed the whole country from South to North, using the back roads, to finish in stunning Porto. Despite losing our way a couple of times, or maybe thanks to that, we encountered so many beautiful spots off the beaten track, without tourists but under uninterrupted sunshine, in agriculture Alentejo as well as in the mountains of the Serra Da Estrela and the Douro Valley. Emigration (a longstanding limit to Portuguese development since the time of colonialism) is up again. Easy to understand, with unemployment at 15%, falling wages and fast rising costs. The country is much more expensive than just a couple of years ago: the VAT on restaurants has gone up from 10 to 23%, and all tariffs (public transport, motorways, petrol) have gone up massively.

Market

It is still a wonderful country, though, and wine and food quality have not been affected. You can still find a lot of good wine for less than 3€/bottle (is cheap alcohol an intentional troika policy as in Belorus?) More upmarket, we tasted the 2009 Vintage Port and it is really promising... let’s hope that when it comes to its best in fifteen years it, austerity will be a distant memory to drink at. Portuguese food is a well-kept secret. Not as varied as the Spanish one for geographic reasons, but extremely well crafted, starting from the unsurpassable sweets but including cheese, offal & pulses, and varied, rich fish soups (even if not as fine as bouillabaisse and brodetto, I must say).

Taylor 2009 Vintage Port, effects of

In contrast to Spain, Portugal is only timidly starting to experiment with ambitious modern cuisine. We tried 100 Maineras in Lisbon, where the chef imitates the Rocas brothers in Cataluña in proposing a nine-course menu of nostalgic gastronomic deconstruction: sardines, bacalhau, suckling pig, Asian colonial inspiration, and even crisps in the shape of washing lines. Although all good and sometimes spectacular, and relatively humbly priced at 47 Euros (5.22 Euros per dish, that is), it did not really convince, and the puddings were particular boring. I don’t think it is because the chef Ljubomir Stanisic is actually from former Yugoslavia and the nostalgia is therefore artificial: it is not me who will underestimate immigrants! Nor because of the ingredients, after all not so different from the Catalan. It made me wonder why conceptual deconstructing cuisine works so well in Spain, France, UK, Austria, but not in Portugal – nor in Poland, where at Tamka 43 recently my Polish friend could only laugh. Maybe it is because ambition looks fine in imperial countries, while in peripheral ones it looks misplaced (I know, Portugal was actually the last European countries to let its colonies go, but its empire was so poor that it hardly counts). Or maybe because Portuguese and Polish traditional cooking is actually very skilled and, unlike the Austrian, British and Spanish ones, it does not need to be revamped?


August 23, 2012

Edinburgh's festival: experiments lost in translation

Underground? Odd venues for Edinburgh fringeThe summer festivals in Edinburgh, and in particular the Fringe, pride themselves of being the most democratic large cultural festival in the world. This year, though, they had a worse-than-usual press. First, the creeping commercialisation of the Fringe caused a sort of controversial ‘split’ (fringe’s fringe?) at the Assembly Rooms. Then the Olympics overshadowed its build-up. Finally, some stand-up comedians had the brilliant idea to joke about rape – placing themselves at the same low level as Republican wannabe senators. And in the meanwhile, the main shows received lukewarm reviews.

We spent the week-end between the main festival and the fringe, and it was worth it, even though the Scottish weather prevented us to take purt in the night walk-cum-light show Speed of Light on Arthur Seat.

No interest in stand-up comedies: with all respect to the performers, it is really a minor genre anbd a result of cost-cutting. A silly guy standing in front of an audience telling jokes on politics/sex/stereotypes - really something I can do myself at home, thanks. But we did go to two of the highlights of the International Festival, 2008: Macbeth and Meine Faire Dame, in the Royal Highland Centre – a huge hangar adjacent to Edinburgh Airport.

Macbeth was an unusual Shakespeare experience. Not so much because it was in Polish: as I had already written, on stage (as opposed to on paper) I prefer Shakespeare in translation than in English, because director and performers can only flourish outside the iron cage of verse and the burden of five centuries of previous recitations. All the more for Macbeth, which literarily is one of the least fascinating plays, with hardly any worthy speech (speeches are admittedly better in English, and an excellent solution is the one of repeating them in both the performers’ language and in English, as in Langhoff's Hamlet: A Cabaret). 2008: Macbeth is set in contemporary occupied Iraq, it was first performed in a weapon factory outside Warsaw, and experiments bravely with screens, pyrothecnics and sound effects: it really seems that a helicopter is landing. The scene is split into four quadrants and the amount of video connections makes the theatre scene as close as ever to the idea of hypertext. All this has not been appreciated by most British critics, complaining that Shakespeare does not need pyrothecnics (Daily Telegraph). What a double pointless argument: of course he does not need them. Yet Macbeth, as said, is with Titus Andronicus one of Shakespeare’s plays where action prevails over word – and the director’s art is making the most of it, and giving it a meaning. Only last year I saw Macbeth in the kingdom of Shakespearean orthodoxy, the Royal Shakespeare theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by the RSC Director Michael Boyd. Even Boyd had to innovate to get something out of Macbeth, replacing the witches with children, adding a historical shift to the Reformation and even... pyrotechnics. Yet Grzegorz Jarzyna (who in 1998, aged only 30, became director of the experimental Teatr Rozmaitosci in Warsaw) goes much further and adds much more. The ghost scene is the best of any Macbeth I have seen, the witches are scary, the whispering sounds make the rise of evil almost palpable. Moreover, the setting in Iraq is the open references to Abu Ghraib jail’s horrors add more food for thought than it is usually delivered by this play.

Given the amount of effort on the set, the actual acting is not so prominent in 2008: Macbeth, and only occasionally (as in the ghost’s scene) is Cezary Kosiński really gripping. The opposite can be said of the second show we saw, Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor by Swiss director Christoph Marthaler. The extremely loose adaptation of My Fair Lady is not placed in some topical historical setting, but in a language laboratory of functional but grey and unfashionable 1970s’s Switzerland (which hits the memory of any Milanese who watched Italian Swiss TV in that decade). There is hardly any plot, and the little plot that is there has no logic. Moreover, there is a disconnection between sound and action, and between sounds, and between characters. It is more absurd than the theatre of absurd, which still maintains unity of time and space. But in this fragmentation of meaning, it opens an avenue for the best possible expression of actors’ talent: moving arhythmically while singing, for instance, is actually more difficult than moving rhythmically. And playing not just with different accents, but with different sounds, pronunciations, talking speeds and languages is a sort of artistic Olympics. I had my eyes wide open in admiration, when not weeping for too much laughing, for the whole 120 minutes. But British critics did not like it, expressing their indignation at the apparent lack of any meaning (Guardian).

What we saw at the Fringe was, paradoxically, much more conventional. Karen’s Way: A Kindertransport Life was a very moving play-story telling on Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany, on the difficult reception of Jewish child refugees, and oin survivers' guilt-trap feelings. It was played simultaneously by a young and a mature actor, representing the past and present of poet Karen Gershon, and in particular director-actor Vanessa Rosenthal is convinging with her German accent, contrasting with the accentless young Karen (because when young, she was actually speaking native-language German).

A more difficult, but less convincing, game with accents occurred in Sister Annunciata’s Secret, a monologue where the actress personifies a Canadian nun, but also her New Yorker and Irish interlocutors. In sum, deciphering languages and accents was important in all four plays we saw, but the experimental nature of the Swiss-German and Polish shows was the most memorable thing I took from this year’s Edinburgh. Rather than too commercial, it looked too innovative (and polyglot?) for the habits of British critics. But it is fortunate that the Edimburgh Festival, like the Olympics, are giving the world a fresher, more modern, open and attractive image of the UK than the embarassingly old-fashioned one given by royal weddings and queen's jubilees (or princely strips).


August 09, 2012

London & the Olympics

After the Olympics came to me to Coventry, I went to the Olympics. So far, they have brought at least three very good things:

(1) The G4S private security blunder: nobody could have staged such a spectacular, world-vision refutation of the theory that private is more efficient than public; it won’t change policies probably, because despite the crisis neoliberals and privatizers are still all around like zombies, but it will remain in public consciousness - just like the fact that fast increase in performance, as for Great britain and China, is only possible with a coordinated effort and public support (better if not in a authoritarian way)

(2) The multi-ethnic, although still a bit classist, nature of the British triumphs: that’s all for you, Daily Mail

(3) More attention to women’s sport than ever before, and also to less famous sports - although only conditionally on the nationality of the favourites coinciding with that of the reporters

Sometimes it so good to look staged, as if in a continuation of the opening ceremony with its celebration of the NHS, social progress and multi-ethnicity. Take today, wednesday: after over a week flooded by British medals, a day of pause with no British success to talk about, so that the headline news could only be the new horrible data on the economy... Osborne must be furious for the bad timing of his circuses.

Orbit

The real thing is indeed good, but having watched football, fencing and athletics I am a little underwhelmed, after so much overenthusiastic reporting in the British media (as in the BBC shouting "Ben Aisle is the best sailor in history"... how about the Vikings, Phaenicians and Columbus?). Everybody looks happy, sure, but in a somehow fake way, like in a big Disneyland. The sport has not been so great, with still no athletic record and little in terms of memorable performances or dramas. The best thing you can say of the weather and the food is that they are typically British, and of the ExCel arena is that it was already there and they did not have to build it on purpose for the Olympics. The Olympic park, while it may be better than the previous wasteland, is soulless and anonymous: it could be anywhere and it has no striking building. The velodrome and the aquatics centre are beautiful inside, but indistinct outside, while the Olympic stadium is very functional, but it deserves to be downsized into a second-tier football ground afterwards – the Polish Euro2012 stadia are much nicer, not to speak of Beijing’s Olympic Stadium. The much-acclaimed Orbit is, from the outside, so ugly that it makes you want to go up to it – from where you can see all but the Orbit itself. The presence of the sponsors is so oppressive that it makes me want to drink Pepsi. And one strange thing I noticed yesterday: the Olympic Park is actually about the only place in the UK where you cannot watch the Olympics: there are big screens only in one place, the Live Park, which is however much too small at peak times to host all curious spectators.

And indeed London, while well-organised, is far from showing vibes of excitement. On Saturday, Hyde Park's Live Site was far from full, and the race walk, which is usually through the city, was hidden away in loops of the Mall, as not to disturb Londoners.

British fans, British food

This does not mean it is not enjoyable or that there are no gripping or exhilarating moments. At the athletics, we saw the exuberant celebrations of German discus thrower Harting, and an amazing finish of the 100m hurdles women. At the race walk we had the drama of seeing the second-placed Russian Borchin collapse in front of us at the last loop - a better collapse, in hindsight, than that of Italian Alex Schwazer, gold medal in Beijung in the 50km, caught for doping. Talking of Schwazer, he reminds the case of Ben Johnson, downgraded from "Canadian hero" to "Jamaican-born" overnight in 1988. In Italy, Schwazer has been downgraded from Italian hero to cheating Southtirolean (e.g. by La Stampa reporter Castelnuovo), while 4 years ago it was the Schützen who condemned him for celebrating with an Italian flag (and being a Carabiniere, i.e. enrolled for the occupying army). In the other direction, Murray, who was a miserable Scot when defeated at Wimbledon a month ago, is now a British icon...

Moreover, London offers so much more than sport anyway. In a break from sports we saw ‘These Associations’, Tino Seghal’s installation at Tate Modern: dozens of performers walking and running around the huge Turbine Hall, and stopping people to tell about individual lives made of uprooting and meetings. I was myself ‘chatted up’ by a performer and found this one of the most unusual artistic experiences. The work is somehow reminicent of Ai Waiwei's ones, but Tino Seghal is himself from Berlin, where I had had another unusual artistic experience that included reindeer urine). And it was somehow like the Olympics: eye-catching, cosmopolitan, and occasionally disconcerting.

PS: indeed, the Jamaican and Kenyan running exploits have now added what the London Olympics were still missing - records and memorable scenes.


July 31, 2012

Olympics in Coventry

Lady Godiva

The Olympic Games - if only with the football matches - in Coventry: it must be the first time that there is some sort of world news involving this city since the beginning of the Millennium. On Sunday, I went to the male football in the City of Coventry stadium, usually called Ricoh arena but renamed for the Olympics due to the strict sponsoring rules, a place where I had been a couple of times to see poor Coventry City and always struggled to keep awake. Coventry City was relegated from the Premier League, after 34 years of honourable survival in the top fight, during my first year here, and this year, devastated by speculative hedge fund investors, was relegated further to League One (third league). So the Olympics are a welcome counterbalance to the long social, economic and sport decline of this city: Gabon-Mexico and South Korea-Switzerland were not memorable, but an improvement on the usual local standards. And on Friday I will go again for the female quarterfinal Great Britain - Canada, which should be exciting (should I support Quebec or Scotland?).

There is also some art involved: the Godiva Awakes project linked to the Olympics is quite impressive and on Sunday I saw the pretty gigantic heroin's marionette, which will cycle all the way to London: it was good, nice and cheerful as people are here, but the grey weather and the even greyer backgrounds were a bit sad and did not impress the few foreign visitors and fans who attended.

Similar feelings for Danny Boyle's opening ceremony in London, which I watched on TV with other 27m spectators in the country. Lovely and cheerful indeed, with all the good things I like of Britain: social history, the NHS, pop music, Akram Kahn, Simon Rattle, self-deprecating humour, cinema, Shakespeare, children literature. But also a bit sad indeed: if Beijing's opening ceremony was all triumph and onwards-looking, London's was all nostalgia and backward-looking. The NHS and British culture have been very good thing, but they are being massacred by the current government. And the whole country is in decline, with the third-worst economic performance in the world (in $) since the beginning of the recession and the worst Chancellor in human memory. Some fools hope the Olympics may help the economy: in fact, data from the last ten Olympics show, if the Olympics help, it is only before the game, with the construction boom; afterwards, it is rather anti-climax and doom - a bit like Coventry City after they built the new stadium.


July 22, 2012

Vive le Tour (even a dull one)

It was one of the dullest Tours I can remember: with an indistinct, unspectuacular route, hardly anything happened in the mountains, and one team was too strong, killing off competition. It was also one of the least deserving winner: 45 competitors removed by falls, and indeed Froome deserved more, but it was hampered by bad luck and iron hierarchy. It was a bit like track cycling invading the roads (100km of time stages is too much), and erasing poetry, scenery and tradition. This year, the Giro d'Italia was much more fun.

Still, well done Wiggins. First of all he looks like a clean win, and if dull means no drug scandals, long live a dull Tour. And the good luck this year balances the bad one last year. But mostly, thanks to him, there is some reporting and attention in the UK, although still nothing in comparison to Italy and France where cycling is the most watched sport. When I arrived to the UK twelve years ago, one of the cultural shocks was that there was no Tour de France on TV. But since the triumphs in the 2004 Olympics and 2007 Track Cycling Championship, the sport is more and more popular. This comes with some disadvantage (some silly consumerism), but (together with the crisis and oil prices) it increases the numbers of bikes on the road. Contrary to the number of cars, the more bikes on the road, the better: it gets safer if everybody gets used to bikes, and the political pressure for more cycling paths increases. The sporty nature of the new rediscovery of cycling in the UK, however, also limits its potential expansion: it is so sporty-looking, that everyday, casual city cycling, without helmet and lycra outfits, like on continental Europe, looks actually rarer. As if cycling were only for athletes: my grandaunt in the Po valley cycled until into her 80s.

In fact, cycling is become a flagship for environmental policies all around Europe, and interestingly, especially on the Right side: it is rightwing mayors like Boris Johnson and Letizia Moratti who have introduced cycleshare schemes in London and Milan. You can easily tell why: more space for bikes is a relatively cheap policy, as far as environmental measures go (especially if like in London they come with sponsorships from morally disputable institutions...), and who benefits most, is the middle classes, in an interesting social reverse from 50 years ago.

I have enjoying cycling a bit everywhere, from Peru to Canada and China. This year around Europe, unfortunately, I did not always have a bike at my disposal, but everywhere I could, I tried out the public cycle schemes and gathered information from local cyclists. And here are my notes.

The worst city for cycling is Madrid - strangely enough, the capital of a proper cycling nation. Only some 1% of the inhabitants cycles to work, and basically the only bikes you see are mountain bikes in the Casa del campo park. The reasons are largely understandable (climate, hills, excellent affordable public transport), but really the Spanish Right is well behind the other European ones and is not doing anything for cyclists.

From TibidaboThe best improvement is in Paris. When I was a student there in the mid-1990s, cycling was even worse than in my native town Milan: I remember the unique madness of placing some cycling lanes in the middle of the roads (the reason was to avoid the most frequent of city cycling accidents, i.e. crashes into opening doors of parked cars - but surely the solution is to remove the cars, not to place the bikes in the middle of fast traffic). Now, the vélib scheme is by far the best I have experienced, for number of bikes, ease of use, cost, and coverage of the whole city. It maybe an expensive scheme (a lot of bikes are lost to vandalism) but it is very well spent money: the whole city is much more livable and many more people take up cycling. But vélib is not the only reason for the cyling surge in Paris. The December 1995 month-long strike of public transport forced so many onto the two wheels, that a good share of them were hooked - and strikes in the Parisian public transports are everyday a possibility. Also, Paris has one of the best attended 'critical mass' traditions, anarchist group cycling and roller-skating to reclaim the streets from car traffic (popular also elsewhere, from Milan to Warsaw).

Clear improvements in comparison to the 1990s can be noticed also in London and in Warsaw, once very cyclist-hostile cities. But the best place among those I have been in the last two years (Copenhagen and Amsterdam did not enter the competition) is still, by far, Berlin - even though I am not a fan of cycling paths on pavements.


July 10, 2012

Ending the Euro–Tour in America

With the end of June, officially, my 2-year research Tour of Europe has ended. I will keep this blog alive during the Summer, to report on local events (Olympics, Edinburgh Festival) and on a trip to Portugal, as well as the new unavoidable instalments of the Eurocrisis. But from October I will be back to teaching, take on more administrative tasks and all typing energies will need to be channelled to academic writing (apprently, this blog does not count as research publication). Not that anyone would be interested in a blog on Around Coventry, anyway.

And where did I end my 24-month European Tour? I thought of the Arc de Triomphe as in the Tour the France or Piazza del Duomo as in Giro d’Italia, and I inquired about the Olympic Stadium in London as in the Olympic marathon. But in order not to be partial among European countries, I eventually concluded outside Europe entirely, in its sociological mirror: the USA. Bar a passing touch-base on the Asian side of Istanbul, I had spent my two years entirely within the old continent. From a global perspective, I have stayed put in my little comfortable hole the whole time.

LibraryDespite the heat, it was worth spending 10 days on the East Coast and taking some healthy distance from Europe, without however really breaking away from it. The first stop was in Boston, as European as the States can get. I really realised I was in America on the second morning, when having breakfast in the same (European-style) cafe as the day before, and the waitress welcomed me with a loud, smiley “oh, hello! how are you todaaaay?! Same coffee as usual?” In Paris or Vienna, it takes 40 years to get the same degree of personal warmth from a cafe waiter as I had achieved by ordering two breakfasts in Boston.

It was in Boston that I could observe and discuss important news, from Europe where a hard-bargaining super-Mario Monti gained new money for the European South – oops, sorry, for the banks with debts in the European South, and from the US with the confusing Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare. It was amusing to observe Romney attacking Obamacare from Massuchussets, the same state where he introduced an identical reform... The ruling looks like a Pyrrhic victory for Obama: the penalties for not taking insurance are low and ineffective, having the law rejected on commerce rules undermines any improvement, and having it upheld as a tax does not make it popular. And again on Euronews, I was in a very mobilised North End (Little Italy) on the 1st of July for the Euro final – I prefer to remember the semifinal, which I watched in a sport bar in the company of, among others, the influential German professor... and I was surprised by how easily I could win an argument with him.

Franklin BridgeAfter Boston, a slow train journey away, it was the time of the much more American Philadelphia, spot on for the 4th of July. The heat didn’t prevent me to explore a bit, despite a busy schedule. At the Constitution Centre, arguably the largest and most important civic education facility in the world, there was an exhibition on Bruce Springsteen, ‘From Asbury Park to the Promised Land’ – it was meant about his link with the American polity, but somehow Woodie Guthrie’s influence was forgotten and the Boss’ recent more political songs were ignored. The US were in a much better light on the night of the 4th of July, with half a million people, of all colours, attending the concert and fireworks, peaceful, respectful and relaxed – they even did not mind having their pictures taken. America at its impressive best – shame that it won’t last like this for more than one night, and even during that night there three people were shot on the next street...

On the previous night, after a meal in Chinatown, I had had the brilliant idea of convincing a couple of friends to head to Northern Liberties, a reportedly lively alternative area with good live music. I had grossly miscalculated American distances and a 10-minute walk became a very long journey through the worst neighbourhoods of North Philadelphia. It was all fun in a way, although some became slightly concerned when two homeless blokes we asked for directions told us that they would avoid the neighbourhood we were entering...

ManhattanFinally, I had 48 hours spare in New York, a place with which I hold a strong love/hate relationship due to old scores, and which in July is definitely not at its best. I stayed in beautiful black, and now more precisely black middle class Harlem, but music clubs were emptyish and tired (anyway, in the jazz/blues ones the only blacks are on stage - better with hip-hop, but I didn't make it to the big festival in Brooklyn). To escape the heat I wondered around some museums, Harlem Studio’s (excellent exhibit on the Caribbean), the MOMA (exhibits on photography, on fellow Italian, but even more fellow world citizen Alghiero Boetti, and most notably ‘Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream’, a timely reflection of the architectural and social disaster of the suburbs and on their alternatives) and the Met (all, more, but best?). The heat in New York tempted me to try the just opened new 1,500 people McCarren swimming pool complex in Brooklyn. Mind you, it is a public, free swimming pool complex: even America, sometimes, needs some important public, free services.

But I am already back to rainy England. Already missing the sun and the enthusiasm, but not really the food: after ten days of American diet I do not want to see a hamburger or a steak sandwich (the cheesesteaks of Philadelphia in particular) for at least a year. Of course, there are lots of alternatives in that land of opportunity. In Boston I had lobster in all shapes, which was fun even though the North Atlantic lobster is just a poor relative of the majestic Mediterranean lobster I used to have as a child as Sunday lunch at my granny’s in Sicily. In Philadelphia I spent time getting lost in the extremely varied Reading Terminal food market, and in New York you can eat as good food as anywhere. But still, behind its freedom and diversity, the American dream, even gastronomically, suffers from some serious imbalances.


June 19, 2012

Euro successes

Market SquareThe two Euro 2012 groups playing in Poland (and the only ones I've followed so far) may have not offered the best football, but they did offer the best fans: the Irish, winners of all prizes as most popular fans, the Russians, undeservedly attacked by hooligans in what however became an occasion for most Poles to rethink their anti-Russian complexes, the colourful Spaniards, the noisy Croats, the musical Greeks, the good Czech soldiers, and of course the poor Poles, who keep singing “Polacy nic nie sie stalo” (Poles, nothing has happened). The only exception is the Italians: few and made of essentially two groups: clueless families and fascists. A few times I wished I was sitting on the other side, but at least, after last night, I can confirm the positive observation that even right-wing fans now appreciate Balotelli.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon and night in Poznan with the Irish fans. While still in a good mood, they did go through a certain involution over the last week: “you’ll never beat the Irish” became “you’ll rarely beat the Irish”, and eventually “you’ll always beet the Irish”. As the football became less and less rewarding, “stand up for the boys in green” gradually gave way to “stand up for the Polish girls” (a bit sexist: just like the various versions of “shag the queen”, not an inherently wrong concept, but space for improvement on form). By the end, they even stopped cheering Trapattoni (he had to wait until the age of 73 for conceding 9 goals in 3 games). Poznan's beer, Lech, is sold in green bottles and cans and enjoyed much favour, even more than the equally green, but weak, Calrsberg sold in the stadiums. Seeing the queues outside bottle shops in Poznan, Polish onlookers could only comment: “it’s just like under communism”.

Quite. Mass rallies on Plac Defilad in Warsaw, under the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science, were not seen since the 1st of May marches of communist times. And Poland’s tournament, even if unsuccessful, has still been their best since… 1986.

What has changed since communism is the perception of Poland. It is, so far, a very successful tournament, all visitors visibly enjoying the perfect organisation, the new stadia and, most importantly, the beautiful cities and the landscape between them (not always the roads, but believe me, they are so much better than just ten years ago). Just like the 2010 World Cup changed the perception of South Africa from dangerous violent country to emerging world economic power, Poland now has strong ambitions of getting rid of any ‘grey’ or ‘poor’ perception. Most Poles have kept the white-red flags on their cars despite defeat. The open racism feared by the BBC has been limited so far to one Croat banana. This ‘feel-good’ effect may not last. When in 2006 Germans broke the tabu of waving their national flags during their home World Cup, the surge in national pride registered by surveys only lasted one month or two. In Poland, the bills for the stadiums, and the poverty of those who could not afford a ticket, will remain. Many companies building the stadiums (incluiding the main contractor of Warsaw's National Stadium), after cut-throat competition for the contracts, have already collapsed and failed to pay subcontractors, leaving hundreds of workers without months of hard-earned wages: like for the recent North Korea-style queen jubilee in London, should modern mass events have to rely on unpaid labour? Unpaid workers were rightly protesting at Wroclaw stadium last week.

PS I was forgetting that the Euro is about football after all. Cheers to Spaniards and Croats, who have provided the ultimate falsification of stereotypes on lower morality of Latin and Slavic people in comparison to pretendedly superior Scandinavians (see Swedish-Danish biscuit, Euro 2004). And cheers to Pirlo, but it hurts to think Milan gave it to Juventus for free last year... a karma for having previously given away Shevchenko and Kaka for trillions after their sale-by date, I suppose.


June 18, 2012

Defensive Greeks

GreeceOn Saturday night, sitting in between thousands of increasingly desperate Russians, I observed an example of Greek bravery, against an intense 90-minute siege. As an Italian, a part of me secretly believes that the best football, the most exciting , the most difficult and the most clever, is defensive football, the catenaccio (my Milanese part believes exactly the opposite, but fortunately football does not require intellectual coherence).

Shame Greeks were as defensive, but not as brave, on Sunday against German austerity as they had been against prodigal Russians. Even if Left voters rallied around Syriza, rightwing ones did the same around New Democracy. So we have, once again, a last minute survival of the Euro. It is not that a Syriza’s victory would have been a rising star, as some Greek friends believe: socialism in one country was impracticably for the largest country in the world (Russian fans on Saturday reminded me of that), let alone for the most dependent economy of the EU15. Tsipras’ project of defaulting while keeping the Euro would have been an adventurous bet and require more than a political, fiscal and accounting miracle (by the way, it would be less difficult for Italy, which does not have a primary deficit and could survive on its own Euros). Maybe, actually, Samaras will be able to negotiate better conditions from the EU than Tsipras would have: he has more friends and more (undeserved) credibility. The point is rather a distributional one: given his electorate, Samaras will not really touch tax evasion nor rent, the roots problems of Greek public finances. And I believe it is urgent, for the Left, to expose the distributional aspects, rather than the technocratic ones, of the Euro-crisis.

Russian minersHere in very sunny Poland (yesterday I even got sun-burnt while kayaking in the countryside) people do not worry about Greece nor the Euro (they are at the end of the news), but only about Euro 2012. On Saturday night, I left the stadium with thousands depressed Russians (what a difference with their singing at the beginning of the match), the best so far in the Euro), heading silently towards the city centre. In the middle of the long Poniatowski’s bridge over the Vistula, we run into an even larger crowd coming in the opposite direction: the Polish fans leaving the Fan Zone after Poland-Czech Republic 0-1. In this same place, on Tuesday Polish hooligans had tried to attack the Russians. This time, typically Slavic melancholy and hang-over united both sides in a depressed and totally innocuous mood. In Wroclaw (where Poland had played) there were some minor incidents, but even there, the large majority of Polish fans opted for joining the Czechs in celebrating the elimination of Russia – for both sides a goal in itself.


June 16, 2012

Croatia – Italy, national questions

Italy - CroatiaPoznan is one of the most dynamic cities in Poland, radically changed since the times I went there as a visiting student in 1989. It is one of the most western in both geographic and socio-economic terms. Which also means that on Thursday, it was full of cars with German registrations but Croat flags… There are more Italians than Croats in Germany, but clearly they are either lazier or, having been in Germany for much longer, less keen on expressing their national pride.

Croatia is a young nation and pride is even more important for them. On the packed tramway from the old town to the stadium I was about the only Italian in a sea of White-Red chessboards… who started to jump with an intensity close to bring the tramway off the rails, while singing ‘tko ne skaca pravoslavni je’: who doesn’t jump is orthodox. Not very relevant on a day match against Italy. But I knew that: when in Travnik, Bosnia, in 2008 as a election international observer, on one evening I was eating some cevapcici in a bar. A group of local (i.e. Bosnian-Croat) youth stared at the way I was eating and then asked why I was not eating the mountain of row onion accompanying the meat – a clear sign that I was a stranger, a rare one in that corner of Bosnia. Once learnt I was Italian, visibly unhappy (Italy had an ambiguously pro-Serbian stand during the Bosnian war), they asked me to make the sign of the cross. This is when my Catholic education came to hand, and I did it the "right" way (left-to-right), earning me the locals’ enthusiastic appreciation –(in Travnik they clearly didn't know that the probability of finding an Italian Orthodox are etremely low). They even offered me a glass for a toast to the pope, adding that ‘we are all Catholic here’… Which was true in Travnik East, but only because the Muslims had either ended in mass graves, or been expelled to Travnik West. Three years earlier, I could imagine, my unexpected drinkmates were fighting. But things have moved on a lot, especially in Croatia, and Zagreb is probably one of the most liberal and open cities in Central Europe – although Croat Bosnia and rural Croatia, especially if affected by the war, less so. And I still have the unpleasant feeling of remembering that some of their hooligans, like the Serbs, were also active in the paramilitary forces in the 1990s.

Although my knowledge of Serb-Croat (sorry Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs, but it does look like one language to me) is very limited, I could often understand the Croats in the tramway and later in the stadium. The youngest ones, while singing in Croat, spoke to each other in German: they are no ‘Integrationsverweigener’. Some also spoke Italian, either because from largely Italian-speaking Istria or because of having spent time in Italy. And in the stadium, they were often singing insults in Italian, thanks to the strong links of love-hate between Croat and Italian hooligans. The Italian fans are too illiterate linguistically to be able to answer – and towards the end of the match were also too depressed.

Apparently some Croat fans booed Balotelli, and one threw a banana. I did not hear or see any racist tone, though, all Croats I saw were all friendly and hopefully, despite the negative efforts of a bit of the Italian right who want to equate fascist crimes and Yugoslavian crimes against Italians at the end of the war, the bad times may be at the end. What I am sure of is that, in both two opening matches, Italian fans supported Balotelli unanimously, and not for instrumental reasons given that he clearly disappointed on the pitch: the time when a part of Italy booed the first black Italy player are definitely over (we have come really last on that: even Poland and Croatia have had black players for longer, and easily got over that).


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