All entries for September 2012
September 30, 2012
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.
But 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.
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.
The 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
When 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.
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.
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).
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?