All entries for July 2012
July 31, 2012
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
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.
The 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
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.
Despite 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.
After 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...
Finally, 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.