All entries for September 2010

September 23, 2010

Touche pas à mon pote

ParisParis is the one city in Europe I return to most happily since the time I was a poor student there in 1994-95, if for no other reason that I had accumulated a long list of things I could not afford but I promised myself for the future. And in recent times I was lucky to be able to stay in the empty flat of S, which in the middle of the VI district and in front of the Palais du Luxembourg is the optimal base for catching up with the most plaisant side of the city (the picture, from the living room´s window, is from last December, not from this week, as the Christmas tree betrays).

But this is not the time to write about vin, chocolat, haute cuisine, marchés, théatre, arts, livres, cafés, musique, and not even of lively things such as le vélib, les mouvements de grève, les "affaires", voire la fusion des Verts avec Europe-Ecologie. I do have to write about the expulsions of the Roma.

At the EU level, the Commission has started a hard game by announancing an infraction procedure and with the strong-worded criticism by Commissioner Reding (a European Commissioner trying to display moral outrage by raising her voice and hitting the table is a very weird sight). The backlash from the big capitals has been immediate: the French commissioner will vote no to the procedure, Berlusconi has reiterated his proposal that nobody, except his friend Barroso, should be allowed to speak officially for the Commission. Among the things that unite Sarkozy, Merkel and Berlusconi, is the annoyance with any public interference from the Commission, which for them only exxists as scapegoat for the policies they want to implement, but do not want to be seen as responsible for (for Cameron it is different: it is not that he likes the Commission to speak, but more simply that he does not care for what it says anyway). With the pressure from the European capitals mounting on the Commission, but little space for a shameful withdrawal after such a public statement, it is not clear where the Commission will find the political power to push anything against France further.

But this is not just an intra-EU issue. The main problematic aspect with the expulsion of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma is not, in my view, that it is of EU citizens. Unfortunately, the concept of EU citizenship, unlike what is being often argued, does not include a right of residence anywhere in the country. It is a concept of economic citizenship, not of social citizenship. We can move and stay in another member state for 3 months, but after then we must demonstrate to be "active", whether at work or through study or at least as consumers of accumulated money (the Nordic pensioners in Spain). In addition, the Romanians and Bulgarians have also their right to work abroad strictly limited until 2014. (I recommend the critique of the economically instrumental EU conception of free movement developed by Giovanni Orlandini and Stefano Giubboni in "La libera circolazione dei lavoratori nell´Unione Europea", Il Mulino 2007). So EU Roma do not have an unlimited right to stay. Interestingly, the Romanian government (let's not forget the anti-Roma feelings within Romania) has not protested, limiting itself to ask the French to "try to stop" the epulsions. The Italian and Czech governments are with Sarkozy, having themselves repatriated EU Roma.

The problem with France is that neither has the French government the right to expel whoever they like after 3 months of stay. Each case, according to the 2004 Directive on free movement, has to be valued individually, each EU citizen must be informed in writing, and have a month time to appeal. And above all repatriation, as an extreme remedy, must be proportional to the damage caused by the individual EU citizen, not by his/her ethnic group. That's what France has not done in its decree of the 5th of August, and the fact that the majority Roma have been paid to go home "voluntarily"changes nothing: it was still an ethnic targeting with insufficient attention to the individual cases.

But if this is the main problem, then EU citizenship becomes rather secondary, because such safeguards as considering individual cases and allowing the time for appeal should apply to any foreigner, from the EU or from without. Many more EU countries than just France and Italy repatriate non-EU Roma, and the legality, let alone humanity, of such procedure is disputable. Fortunately, Germany, where I have just arrived from Paris, is abandoning the repatriations of Roma refugees to Kosovo it had started earlier in the year, as if Kosovo were now a safe state for everybody. And in France the "Touche pas à mon pote" mouvement is vocal (in direct continuity with that against Pasqua when I was a student 16 years ago).

So the issue is eminently political, ethical, cultural - not just legal. The point is whether or not Europe wants to know something about the Roma (a starting point is the participant picture of Central and Eastern European Romas in Isabel Fonseca´s "Bury Me Standing", 1996). Or whether it wants to subscribe to an inhumane false sociology that, in perfect Front National style, draws from some spurious data the conclusion that all members of certain migrants are dangerous. The alleged link migration-crime is actually dismantled in the UK by B. Bell et al ("Crime and Immigration: Evidence from Large Immigrant Waves", IZA Discussion Paper 4996, 2010), and in France by D. Fougère et al. ("Youth Unemployment and Crime in France", Journal of the European Economic Association, sept 2009).

And on this political issue the mainstream Left is not clear. It was nice to listen to PS-leader Martine Aubry (in an inspired way so different from Commissioner Vivien Reding's) remind that "les Roms, en France, ils sont chez eux!", but that was counterblanced by her predecessor François Hollande playing the game of the Right by ambigously blaming the French rightwing governments for having accepted Romania into the EU in 2007 - as if suggesting that the Left would have kept them out...


September 18, 2010

Ratzinger flies in and I fly out

It happens that tomorrow morning I’ll take off from Birmingham more or less at the same time as Pope Benedict XVI lands. When his visit was announced I just saw it as a curiosity (not much happens in the West Midlands) and a very moderate hope: this reactionary Pope, I thought, could learn one thing or two from the relatively progressive English Catholic Church, and from British tolerance and multiculturalism. In turn, the Pope’s sober socio-economic thought, if not leftwing (Serge Latouche offers an interesting analysis in this month’s Monde Diplomatique) would cause no harm in the context of London’s financial madness. Neither would his defence of migrants.

I was largely wrong in my forecasts, as usual. Tolerance and multiculturalism are among the things I appreciate most in Britain, but suddenly, the country has also manifested an underbelly of sectarian anti-Catholicism that I only knew from history books. And it’s not just rev. Paisley. The Independent, Daily Telegraph, Guardian have been full of angry criticism for weeks, even a demonstration (if, eventually, rather small) has been organised against the visit. I can’t stand any form of religious proselitism or intolerance, but among them all, I find atheist fanaticism the weirdest one: why do they care? While there’s plenty to criticise about Ratzinger, the protests and opposition are so out of proportion and I believe have no precedents in other countries – even if in other countries there would be much sounder reasons to protest. It is very strange to hear people who generally, while provocative, are thoughtful and interesting (Richard Dawkins, Julie Burchill, Polly Toynbee...) fall into intolerant rants that match those in New York against the so-called ‘9/11 mosque’: ‘force of evil’, ‘oppression', ‘most criminal organisation on earth’, 'Hitlerjugend'... Come on, that's the Tea Party with Obama.

In Britain, the Catholic Church has no political power, and it was even repressed or discriminated against until the day before yesterday. I could try to understand the oxymoron of ‘secular puritanism’ if it came from a country consistently secular, such as France. But Britain still has bishops in the House of Lords and an unelected monarch who is also head of a Church (and the fact that she says nothing controversial is a weird justification: I prefer to pay to listen to something controversial than absolute nothingness).

I have tried to understand the criticism, which should not have been difficult given that I dislike so many of Ratzinger’s ideas, but I found it little convincing. A lot is said about contraception. But Ratzinger’s ideas on this are not a dogma. 50% of priests and 70% of lay Catholics do not subscribe to it, including Cardinal Martini who was Ratzinger’s main challenger in the last conclave. And anyway, given that the Catholic Church does not (anymore) force people to follow its preaching, there’s something incoherent in proclaiming free choice, but banning the refusal of contraception. And this is even more the case with the AIDS in Africa argument. HIV infection is actually much lower in Catholic Sub-Saharian African countries than in non-Catholic ones, so if there is a link, it is between Catholic preaching and increased HIV infection among those who don't follow it. There’s actually something sinister in this obsession with condoms, that is the propagating idea that world’s poverty and AIDS are actually ‘their fault’ because they don’t use contraception, and not a socio-economic problem rooted in an unjust world system. But women’s reproductive health and AIDS have socio-economic causes, rather than moral ones as both fanatic Catholics and fanatic anti-Catholics believe. Take the most theocratic country on earth, Iran: despite the ayatollah, births per woman fell from 7 to 2 (European level) in twentyfive years, thanks to economic and social development (the state also introduced some family planning, but still under ayatollah's guidance). On this point I side with Germaine Greer: patronising Thirld World's women is neither useful nor feminist. If we care about child poverty and AIDS we have to reach to our wallet rather than shouting at the pope.

There’s then the issue of cost for the taxpayer. That a country that dreams to remain a nuclear power and keep Trident cannot afford state visits is peculiar. In Italy we pay the bill when the queen comes, and even when anybody in her extended family comes – prince Charles much too often – even if the majority of us consider the idea of monarchy offensive. That's called international relations. And anyway, in pure Thatcherite style, in this case Britain has obtained a ‘rebate’ and large part of the bill is taken up by Catholics, so what’s still to complain about?

The most serious argument against the Pope’s visit is, of course, the child abuse scandals. The issue had to be raised, and it needs much deeper consideration from the Church, the point being not just the 0.5% priests who are paedophile, but the sort of authority they exploited, and the culture of institutional omertà that protected them. Yet raising the issue is a reason in favour of the visit, not against it. And this pope has listened much more - if still not enough - than the previous one, who seemed not to understand the issue. Within weeks from election, Ratzinger started a number of investigations, the most important one on the Legion of Christ. So arresting him for ‘crimes against humanity’ as Dawking asks sounds out of proportion. If we have to speak of crimes against humanity, who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, the Vatican? Once Tony Blair and the queen are in jail we can see if the pope should join them.

Yet this is probably another lesson from this 2 years around Europe: beware models and idealisation. Just as ‘socialdemocratic’ Sweden is not so socialdemocratic (blog of the 14th July), tolerant England is not so tolerant.


September 16, 2010

The Eastern European migrant as a fiction hero

This is a sociologist’s eye critique of two successful award-winning British novels, and a couple of films, on Eastern European migrant workers:

- Rosemary Tremain, The Road Home (2007)

- Marina Lewycka, Two Caravans (2007) (US title: Strawberry Fields)

These two novels’ merits are twofold: humanising the Eastern European workers who have “flooded” the British labour market since 2004, and to give us, in the reflection of their eyes, a different perspective on British society. Yet as a sociologist, even respecting the licence fiction writers have, it is impossible not to notice the number of mistakes and distortions. When noticing them, I initially thought I was being pedantic, but then started to wonder where this specific form of migrant idealisation comes from.

Tremain’s book has met the best critics’ reception, and it is the most inaccurate. The author, it has to be said, has cleverly avoided the problem of historical accuracy by explicitly de-contextualising the hero, Lev, by not saying from which country he comes from. He is just from an imaginary Eastern European country, which seems to combine the worst bits of Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria in one, quite depressing, place. It may be unfair to criticise a fantasy for inaccuracy, but the problem is that from this dystopia follows an idealisation of the migrant’s path.

The best side of the book is the representation of Lev’s lonely, because not understood by any British person around, nostalgia for his village and in particular his daughter. Only his drunk Irish lodger, who is being himself alienated from society and from his own daughter, shows some understanding. The book has indeed poetic appeal and portrays some of the ‘hidden suffering’ of migrant workers well analysed by French-Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad. Nostalgia is a rich theme, but its portrayal in the book is not convincing - it is much better accounted in a different recent novel, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (2008), who manages to combine historical accuracy (post-9/11 New York) with existential depth. By contrast, Lev’s situation in Tremain’s book is so absurd that it evoked anger rather than sympathy. For instance, Lev is able only very rarely to communicate with his daughter and mother, because they don’t have a landline at home, and because Lev can’t afford calling their neighbour friend from his British mobile phone. Now, it is plausible (if unlikely) that a family may still not have a landline in Eastern Europe in 2005. But which migrant worker in London calls home directly from his mobile phone? Tremain probably has never put foot in Eastern Europe, but has she at least been out in London? How could she not notice the number of phone shops or cheap call cards with which you can call Easter Europe from about 1p a minute? This is not a pedantic detail: broken communication lines are a fundamental theme in the book, and their absurdity makes the rest fall apart.

Yet from a sociologist’s of work perspective, it is Lev’s career that is laughable [attention: spoiler follows]. A 42-year old male with only previous work in state-owned wood industry, followed by long employment, starts cleaning dishes in a top restaurant in London, and by simply occasionally turning his head from the sink to look at what the chef does, within a few months he has learnt all his techniques and when an unexpected opportunity arises, he establishes himself as a successful chef, and then, in another few months, accumulates enough money to go back home and open his own restaurant. Now, other people may be faster than me at learning new cooking techniques. But this trajectory is so ridiculous that it can only be accepted as a subtle irony of London celebrity chefs: as Lenin famously said that under communism the government can be run by a kitchen aid, is Tremain arguing that in capitalist London a celebrity restaurant can be run by a dishwasher? Not so sure. This is the American Dream inflated and revisited in a soppy English sauce, and the opening quote to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, rather than putting this book in the same tradition, just manifests what Tremain has failed to do: observing economic migrant lives.

One of the few credible pages in The Road Home are the interlude in which Lev works as an asparagus picker in a farm: indeed, from the book’s acknowledgments, migrants’ farm work seems to be the only reality the author has observed and researched. But if you are into migrant labour in agriculture than look at the second novel, Two Caravans. This is a comic novel, following the success of Lewycka’s debut ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’. Humour writers enjoy even more licence, but Lewycka actually knows her topic much better than Tremain does. Herself the daughter of Ukrainian refugees, she has a particular sensitivity for Ukrainians, but also for all other foreigners. And indeed all characters in this Babel Tower of a novel are well described and extremely well placed in their backgrounds: the Poles, the Kosovar, the Moldovian, the Malawi, the Chinese and even the Malaysian Chinese.

Stylistically, the most remarkable, and ambitious, feature of the novel is that it is written in multiple voices: each scene told by a different character, in a different style. Lewycka attempts at portraying the way the speak, and each makes characteristic mistakes in English – often very funny, nearly like those I make in my lectures, only to keep students awake of course. And she goes even further, in trying to give a specific sound to the heroes when they speak to each other in their own native language (e.g. Polish): in that case, of course, the vocabulary becomes suddenly rich, but the style is still peculiar, for instance with the missing articles that characterise Slavic languages. I think this is as far as you can get in portraying multilinguism in a text written in one language. Not all is successful, though. First, the style is not always consistent. Second, I felt the author went one step too far when adding, among the first-person narrators, the dog, who writes not only in bad English, but also in Comic fonts. Finally, and most importantly, she got the language of the main hero wrong. The ambiguous tension between Andriy, miner from Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, and Irina, student from Kiev in the West, is a main theme in the book and has interesting political tones, Irina being a supporter of the Orange Revolution and Andriy an opponent. But while the narration reminds frequently that they dislike each other’s accent, it is most strange that they speak the same language at all, for in Donbas the large majority are Russophone. Sorry if I sound pedantic, but language is actually a crucial political, cultural and social divide in the Ukraine – maybe my Canadian and Belgian friends know what I mean. Currently, the Ukraine has both president and prime minister Russophone, and the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, even struggles in Ukrainian (I don’t know of any other prime minister who is not fluent in the official language of his country). The current government proposal to de facto equalise the use of Russian and Ukrainian is threatening to break the country apart. Yet, in the novel, Andriy speaks Ukrainian happily.

I would still strongly recommend Two Tractors as both funny and instructive. There are limits, naturally as I think that it is impossible to write an entirely funny comic novel: you physically can’t keep laughing for 300 pages. It may be criticised that Lewycka used humour on terrible topics such as human trafficking: but the book has a very strong moral dimension. Some scenes are more shocking and convincing than press reports, for instance when some characters end up working in graphically described horrific chicken processing factory. I liked how the Pole Tomasz, who speaks little English but plays the guitar and loves the Beatles and Bob Dylan, eventually leads a worker revolts, jumps up and shouts ‘How many years must these persons exist before they learns to be free?’. And after they all lose their chicken-processing jobs, the Pole Yola says to her niece Marta and their Ukrainian and Malawi colleagues: ‘Now we are in Europe marketing we can earn good money here. I will be teacher. Tomek will be government bureaucrat. Marta... what will you be?’. ‘I will be a vegetarian’. ‘One day Ukraina will be also in Europe marketing. And Africa too.’

Put together, these two novels also tell us something about Britain. This is a new form of Orientalism, a fascination with the ‘other’, but also its undermining as ‘naive’. Tremain’s Lev and Lewycka’s Andriy are quite similar in their difference from the dominant models of modern Britain: honest, hard-working, uninterested in celebrities, and – typical stereotype on ethnic minorities – very heterosexual. Their Eastern European additional specificity is a leaning towards melancholy. At the same time, they bring a very sad look at the state of the West, and a little hope for the future.

Eastern Europeans are slowly making success as heroes in literature and cinema throughout Europe: it is an interesting development as it may affect the popular perception of a macroscopic demographic change that is taking place. In Italy, for instance, Gianfranco Bettin (better famous as Venetian environmentalist politician) wrote ‘Nebulosa del Boomerang’ (2004), where the heroin is a Polish prostitute. Now, the poor prostitute saved from a nasty pimp by a good man was a trite plot already at the time of Titus Maccius Plautus, but Bettin’s novel is very original, not least for the female taxi driver character. The same cannot be said about some movies on the same topic, e.g. the soppy ‘Vesna va veloce’ (1996) by Carlo Mazzaccurati, on a Czech prostitute. More ad hoc in terms of topic, but equally soppy, is 'Mar Nero' by Bondi (2009), on a Romanian domestic worker. Even in the otherwise excellent Austrian ‘Revanche’ (2008) by Spielmann whe weakest character is the Ukrainian prostitute-heroin. In the case of films, I would say that it is better if they stay away from that topic. Most smartly, this is done in another Austrian movie, ‘Import – Export’ by Seidl (2007), which follows the parallel paths of Paul, an Austrian young unemployed with a criminal stepfather going East, and Olga, an Ukrainian nurse going West and ending up in a geriatric hospital. The scenes of the geriatric hospital and those of the Roma ghettoes in Slovakia are extremely realistic (Seidl’s background’s is in documentary movies), and Olga’s trajectory challenges all stereotypes: she moves West to escape, not to embrace sex work. In the UK, Ken Loach too avoids prostitution in ‘It’s a Free World’ (2007), but like in all other Loach’s movies, the perspicacity on British characters and British society is not matched by a comparable understanding of non-British characters. The same had happened for the Spanish, Nicaraguan, Mexican or Irish heroes of his previous works: the Poles are idealised, and if the intention may be good, the effect is not convincing, at least for someone like me already devoting a lot of time to ‘real’ Polish migrant workers. Interestingly, the Polish own representation of their emigrants is more critical, as in the popular TV series ‘Londonczycy’ ('the Londoners'). And already well before EU integration, Polish director Skolimowski (who has just won the Venice jury special prize for the intriguing ‘Essential Killing’, on a Al-Qaida prisoner fleeing a secret CIA prison) had produced the outstanding ‘Moonlighting’ (1982), on Polish builders working illegally in London at the times of Solidarnosc. But then, Skolimowski is an emigrant himself. He knows better.


September 13, 2010

Kraków & Zakopane 21 years later

I had spent some important time in Kraków and in Zakopane, in the Tatra mountains, between 1989 and 1994, but I hadn’t gone back to the former Polish capital since 2001. I am more familiar with, and partial to, the new but (Krakovians would add) ugly, rude and corrupt capital, than with the picturesque but (Warsavians would add) conservative and stingy old one. Now, Kraków is considered as a serious rival to Prague on the good and ugly sides of tourism. The Prague – Kraków comparison is actually meaningless whichever way you look at it: in the Renaissance Kraków was a capital of a major European power, while Prague had to wait until the XX century to be capital of a serious state; but then, in the XX century Krakow was no capital of anything. As a result Krakow wins hands down on Gothic and Renaissance (not just Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine), but Prague is head and shoulders above it from the XIX Century onwards; the physical setting is also hard to compare: Prague’s is more picturesque, but Kraków has better surroundings. The competition makes some sense only on Baroque & Rococo, and I’d say it’s a draw.

Twenty years ago, exiting the pre-war Kraków Główny station I would be met with the messy state of the station square, including the ugly coach station and a variety of jumbled kiosks. In the evening, I was also struck by darkness, given the very feeble public lighting: a warning to keep my eyes well open; and in winter, by the sharp coal burning smell, from household heating and from the nearby Nowa Huta steelworks (on Nowa Huta I recommend Vera Trappman’s and Alison Stenning's research). Today, I leave the platform of the new station and directly enter a huge shopping mall, with the disappointing feeling that it’s just like in Birmingham New Street Station: what’s the point of travelling? Once out, the square is smart clean and the bus station has been moved to the other side of the railways. And on the other side of a large communist-time subway, one is immediately in the Old Town.

Here is the good surprise. Despite the stag and hen parties and the coach tours, not much has changed, and the city has kept a very clear focus on cultural tourism. Renovations have gone on, but rather than simply repainting every single inch in pastel colours as in Prague, they have focussed on the important bits as the Central Market’s Sukiennice (Cloths Market), whose first floor will be open soon. Streets and pavements still have their share of potholes, but they are not entirely covered with tables for tourists. The historical artist café Jama Michalika, whose predilection for hard currencies was visible already in 1989, hosts folk shows for tourists in the evenings, but it looks exactly as it did and remains a café-museum, with its unbelievably slow service.

Kosciol MariackiChange is more visible in the Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. In 1989 it was just derelict, Poles having little interest in Jewish heritage. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) put it on the tourist map, and cafés, restaurants and museums have multiplied since. During Schindler’s List’s production, Spielberg recruited hundreds of locals for walk-on parts for the concentration camp scenes, and offered a very attractive pay for anybody ‘Jewish looking’. Transition crisis-struck Krakovians queued for the posts but, reportedly, most of them started by saying ‘I’d like the job, but I’m not Jewish’ (by the way, I don’t think they were well selected, given how many of them looked overweight). Similarly, I doubt that any of today’s Kazimierz ‘traditional Jewish’ cafes and restaurants is actually Jewish. On the other side, if any tourist is so ignorant not to know that Kraków’s Jewish traditions were violently and radically interrupted, they deserve to be conned.

Like in Prague, food is not much value for money in tourist areas such as the Old Town and Kazimierz, but interesting places are only a couple of tram stops away, including, unthinkable 21 years ago, vegetarian or nouvelle Pologne ones. Some very good (Vega, ul. Krupnicza), some with mixed results. At the very Polish-sounding, recently opened Restauracja Kowalska, after an un-Polish sounding amuse-bouche I was recommended quail, only for the waitress, twenty minutes later, to tell me that there was no quail. Had it flown away? No, she admitted, there was ‘something wrong with it’ – which suggested the chef was incompetent either with supplies, or preparation. Worse, she went on to claim that the dish could be prepared in the same way with veal – a replacement that reminded me of shortage economy era recipes calling for ‘prawns, or in their absence frankfurter sausages’. But then at least, she asked how I wanted the veal done: in the past, nobody asked in Poland, because meat would invariably come in one way, i.e. overdone. And this time, the veal was as rare – and delicious – as I had ordered, something that happens rarely in England (I will comment another time about the ethics of veal farming and eating).

Krakow’s investment in culture is visible in a range of new museums (including Schindler’s Factory) and the New Opera, and is accompanied by more popular investment in the form of two new football stadia (Euro 2012 is approaching, although they won't play in Kraków). All this investment, combined with an efficient management of the city defence during this summer’s floods (floods make and unmake elections: ask Cimoszewicz why he lost in 1997, and Schröder why he won in 2002) gives mayor Majchrowski a near-certain re-election this Autumn. Majchrowski (last time elected for the Left) is an apparent anomaly for traditionally right-wing Kraków, but actually represents a trend in popular, independent mayors who successfully distance themselves from national politics. Majchrowski has left the party and rules with opportunistic coalitions. In April, he organised Lech Kaczyński’s state funeral and disputed burial in the Wawel castle alongside Polish kings and heroes, but since then he has carefully avoided the war of religion over the Presidential Palace’s cross that is consuming the national parties.Zakopane

From Kraków, it’s 110 km to Zakopane, up in the Tatra mountains. In the 1930s, the Torpeda Podhalańska locomotive, pride of Polish engineering, covered the distance in 132 minutes. Today, the train takes four hours (progress is not linear), so I took the coach. Thanks to road works and a couple of horse-powered vehicles, I arrived at the same time as the train. In the XIX-early XX Century Zakopane was considered as the cultural capital of (then inexistent as a state) Poland, being a meeting point of poets and artists. The extravagant Witkacy’s theatre is the best surviving memory of it. But now Zakopane is more and more overcrowded, and house pricesKasprowy Wierch are no cheaper than in the Alps: the High Tatra do look like the Alps, but cover a very small area and are the only high mountains for a country of 40 millions (plus 5 million Slovaks: their side is a bit less crowded, and better for skiing). It’s only because of low labour costs that tourist services are still cheap: at least in September, you can get a decent room for 20 Euros, and eat well for 10. The national park fights an impossible war against path erosion. In these conditions, the enduring dream of hosting the Olympics (despite defeat for the 2006 ones) is madness: Zakopane has not enough water, enough space, and a sufficiently long downhill slope for the Olympics. But Poles are romantic dreamers, and speculators exploit this. On this occasion, heavy snowfalls prevented me to reach the summit of Świnica (2301m), but the views from walking along the ridge separating Poland from Slovakia were a sufficient compensation, only disturbed by my mobile phone continually receiving the texts "welcome to Poland", "welcome to Slovakia", "welcome to Poland", and so on.

The gastronomic pride of Zakopane is the smoked sheep cheese Oscypek, for good reason. For the rest, the little town is now full of ‘Karczmy’, fake mountain inns where waiters in traditional mountain dresses serve rather dull food, at the sound of folk music. I am left wondering what Wyspiański, the neo-romantic poet who in Wesele (The Wedding) metaphorically described the impossibility of consummating the marriage between Polish peasantry and intellectual revolutionaries, would make of the marriage of convenience that is now consummated everyday between peasantry and tourists, in Kraków and Zakopane.


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