All entries for February 2011

February 21, 2011

At home in Vienna, with a ear to Hamburg

Italy celebrates its 150th birthday this year (among typical disagreement: should we celebrate? if yes, should we also spend money on it? if not, should we protest instead? and in any case, what about South Tirol?), and Rome has been the Italian capital for 140 years. But as a Milanese, even if as far from the Northern League as possible, ‘my’ previous capital is just as familiar: Vienna. Weather, architecture, music, cuisine, intellectuals and, some would add, efficiency and order: don’t we have more to share with Vienna than with Rome? After all, the Wienerschnitzel and the costoletta alla Milanese are only distinguished by a (mostly forgotten nowadays) piece of bone in the latter. For whatever reason, in Vienna I feel very much at home.

When I first visited Vienna in 1987 (on a school trip from which the main, not particularly good memory is Grinzling’s white wine), the city was Western Europe’s back yard, a cul-de-sac. It did have the remains of a multi-national empire, but in a very decadent setting. In two decades, during which I crossed the place at regular intervals, it has become the centre of Central Europe and the share of foreign population has doubled. In half an hour you can enter, at your choice, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary. Bratislava is round the corner; in a couple of hours you can get to Prague, Kraków, Budapest; just a little more effort and you arrive to Ljubljana, Zagreb, Munich or even Triest. Sister imperial capital Budapest may be bigger, more scenic and more imposingly metropolitan, but it is less connected and much less cosmopolitan. In Vienna, you hear on the street all possible Slavic languages, plus Turkish, although in the old town you mostly hear Italian tourists (I suspect more Milanese visit Vienna every year than Rome). It is not that the Viennese love their neighbours: in the opinion polls, the large majority is critical of the right to work for citizens of the new member states, which will come to force on the 1st of May, even if no invasion is expected (the Poles and Slovaks have already gone to the UK). But thanks to shared history and to the ‘downgrading’ of Austria as a nation, the Viennese take their neighbours much more seriously than the Germans do. Including the Italians: no silly jokes here. And including the Turks. If the problems of ‘integration’ are similar to the German ones, here, where the most ancient buildings still show the Turkish cannon balls from the two sieges, Turkey is more feared than despised. And fear involves respect: Oriental art is always in fashion in Vienna, and so are posh Turkish restaurants – in Berlin, there is no posh Turkish restaurant. Austria has been much less fussy than Germany at giving Turks (and other foreigners) citizenship.

And plenty to admire in Vienna, from the Sachertorte that I endlessly try to imitate in my modest kitchen, to the art exhibitions, to... public housing. From the Karl-Marx Hof and the other interwar Red Vienna buildings, similar to fortresses and strategically located for their military utility during insurrections, to the recent ones bearing utopian plaques such as “menschlich wohnen – glücklich leben” - I can’t imagine that for the English council estate I live in, Tile Hill. With such good-quality public housing subprime mortgages and housing-market induced crisis are unthinkable, not just impossible in Austria. Maybe the Irish, this week, if they find their own parties so hopeless, they should invite the Austrian (boring) Grand Coalition, or better, the new Viennese local Red-Green coalition, to rule them for a while - better than the IMF.

Vienna’s Red-Green coalition is in fact just an example of recent political experiments at the local city level all around Europe. Right now is the round of Hamburg, another city I am familiar with. Hamburg is actually used to political experiments. It had the Right-populist Ronald Schill ten years ago, then an aborted try at a ‘Black(CDU)-Green’ coalition, which collapsed after the middle classes resisted an attempt at making schools a little more ‘comprehensive’. On Sunday, the SPD, which at national level is in a state of disarray, won the absolute majority in the city-state elections, while Merkel’s CDU fell from 42% to 20%. Led by the pragmatic, moderate Olaf Scholz, Hamburg’s SPD benefits from a ‘Helmut Schmidt’ effect: the 93-year old former Mayor and Chancellor is as popular as ever in his city, especially after the recent funeral of his even-more popular wife. Its success will allow a local experiment but will not be imitated in the other German Länder, or anywhere else. Curiously, the proud Viennese, when extolling their own best-in-the-world cafés, they contrast them to Hamburg’s allegedly miserable ones.


February 01, 2011

On Tahrir Square

Follow-up to Wind from the Sahara? Tragic declines on both shores of the Med from Around Europe 2010-12

The Sahara wind from Tunisia, after a first tentative westwards to the Algerian Atlas, is now blowing in full force eastwards, to the Nile Valley; for the North we may have to wait.

On Al Jazeera live news we see Tahrir Square from above nearly 24 hours per day. I spent a couple of nights around the corner in April 2003, in a budget Egyptian hostel at the top floor of a building, with an usual view of the 'pending slums' on the top of the other buildings, and 24h noise from the square. It was the last days of the Iraq war, and in the lobby Egyptians (no westerners in that hostel, and nearly no westerners in the whole Middle East those days, not even on the Pyramids) looked in stunned silence at the instant collapse of the Iraqi army, considered as the strongest Arab army. Impossible to say whether they were happy or sad - they refused any comment apart from saying that they had nothing against me, even if I had been American. But it was transparent what they were thinking: if Saddam is a paper tiger, then Mubarak, and the Egyptian Army, must be ridiculously weak, whatever the propaganda.

Tahrir Square is huge, crowded, full of traffic. Full-to-capacity buses do not stop on the square; they just slow down and people jump on and off them. Luxury Hotels and the National Museum on one corner, the Nile on one side, and the modern centre on the other: different worlds mix in the spiralling square traffic without interruption. Until yesterday, comparing the TV images with my memory, I was stunned by how small the crowds seemed to be: fewer people than on a normal day, and an irrelevant number in a city of 20 million. Are we seen a televised revolution, instead of a real one? I am not a Baudrillard follower, but recent waves of revolutions along exactly the same scripts and all branded with 'colours' (Belgrade 2000; Georgia 2002; Kiev 2004...) do show the influence of media and mass event management.

But today, there are one or two millions on Tahrir Square. There is a general strike. With all the international attention focussed on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian labour movement has been neglected and it appears as more influential than imagined (for an interesting recent analysis see Anne Alexander, "Leadership and Collective Action in the Egyptian Trade Unions", Work, Employment and Society, 2, 2010). If religious strife is important in today's Egypt, the most pressing concern for Egyptians are unemployment and the price of food.


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