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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.


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.

February 20, 2012

Bruxelles: l’union fait–elle la force?

Grand-PlaceI spent last week, just another ‘crucial’ week for the Greek issue, in Brussels. It is not a city I particularly like. I have visited it often, but always for short, and always with the same grey indistinct weather, worse even than English weather, where it may rain more, but there is some variation on the theme at least. Maybe it's just because most times I just visit its two most soulless and immoral bits: the surroundings of Gare du Nord, with its 1970s World Trade Centre, the red-light district and the European Trade Union House (the reason of my visit is the last), and the European institutions – in whose corridors, last week, the default of Greece was taken as granted, with much shoulder shrugging.

The city centre is pretty, but not as much as other Belgian towns. Since Belgian independence, art is mostly restricted to concept rather than beauty, from art nouveau to surrealism and BD, the cartoons – the new Hergé museum in Louvain-La-Neuve is architectonically impressive but I didn’t have the time to see it and check what they made of Tintin’s reactionary and colonialist tendencies.

Herge MuseumNeither am I a fan of Belgian cuisine. Its large portions and generous fat-intake are comforting, sure, but I think it is largely overrated, overcooked (including the mussels), oversweetened (including the chocolate), and, of course, overpriced. Belgium has just been found to be the most expensive country in the Eurozone, after Luxembourg (I am not sure how Finland can be behind – mystery of European statistics). Of course, there are exceptions, the trappist beer and Pierre Marcolini’s chocolates, but even there, I prefer the less fussy British ales and the bitterer French chocolates (Christian Constant...).

Overpriced, I was saying. This is the headlines in Belgium, which is going through its own little sovereign debt crisis thanks to its debt at around 100% of GDP and a fresh downgrading by the visible dirty hand of the market, the rating agencies. The kingdom has been forced by external pressure to find itself a government after a year and a half of surrealist anarchy. Fortunately, it is a centre-left government, and not a technocratic one, but the pressure is here too on public expenditure, privatisation, and especially wage indexation, on which high prices are blamed.Chocolat

One thing I would in theory like of Bruxelles is bilingualism (or even more than bi-, given the penetration of English and 30% foreign population). I am fascinated by bilingual places, whether Montreal, Südtirol, North Wales or Catalunya. But apart from the cacophonic nature of Dutch (but Catalan is not much better), here bilingualism is more divisive then enriching. The new Prime Minister Di Rupo (who speaks Italian and English) is now taking Dutch lessons, but his faux-pas (like saying ‘recreation’ instead of ‘recession’) confirm Flemish perception of the Walloons treating Dutch as a second-class language, and thereby their refusal to answer in French. Similar fights occur in all bilingual countries and regions (Latvians just voted on Sunday to refuse Russian an official status), but here the division is deepest, with clear geographic borders between linguistic groups. One Dutch word I know is "apartheid"... and without making silly comparisons with South Africa, I am afraid the state of Belgium resembles right now the state of Europe as a whole: dialogue between deaf and façade agreements to satisfy external demands. The Belgian motto is l’union fait la force, unity is strength – which does not sound convincing whether in Belgium or in the EU.

September 18, 2011

Catalan pride

While in my recent three months of study in Spain I did not have one single day of holiday, I now finally had almost two weeks of free browsing, with H, through Catalan natural, cultural and gastronomic heritage. All while the deepening economic crisis forced Spain to a rushed constitutional reform, in a few days and without any real debate, to appease the European Central Bank and the market: the Spanish Constitution of 1978 had only been amended once before, in 1992 to implement the Maastricht Treaty, and whenever Catalans asked for amendments it was replied that it was too important to be touched without years of deliberations...

Drawing on a pinch of ancient Roman and even ancient Greek legacies, Romanesque art, now so well displayed in the re-opened wing of the MNAC, is the first ground of pride for Cataluña. In the booming first Century Catalunya was arguably the most advanced place in Europe. I like Romanesque even more than Gothic, as it actually combined with classic architectural heritage well before the Renaissance, and it merged Eastern and Western influences: it is less pretentious, but more universal and certainly more spiritually Christian than Gothic. And so is the Romanesque heritage of Catalunya, dispersed from the coast to the green Pyrenees valleys. Catalan tourist promotions tend to say that Catalan medieval villages and towns are like Tuscany, but I’d even say that this is an understatement. Many of them are even better, and while equally well-kept and somehow exclusive, they are not as posh, nor as flooded with tourists as their Tuscan counterparts, whose heyday, by the way, came a little later. The setting is also more spectacular in Catalunya, whether on the coast (the St Pere de Rodes monastery on Cap de Creu) or in the mountains. Besalu

Cataluña was also strong in Gothic times, and the churches of Girona and Barcelona are impressive. But by then the centred of European art had moved north and east. This is particularly evident in the fresco painting by Ferrer Bassa in the St Michael Chapel of the Pedralbes Monastery in Barcelona: fascinating, but a long shot from the Giotto’s ones they wanted to imitate.Sant Pere de Rodes

Then Catalan power declined, with Aragon and Castilla taking over, and Columbus’ discovery of America, together with many other disgraces, brought about the decline of Barcelona, relegated into the backwaters of trade. But I’d say that the dark periods of Catalan history help highlighting the glorious periods. Industrialisation in the XIX Century is the other one, with economic, social and political turmoil, modernist architecture and an orgy of artistic experiments. The rest is too well-known: civil war, Franco’s oppression, revival.

The economic success of Catalunya is very visible along the Costa Brava and inlands, but it becomes clearest when you cross the border into France – or what the Catalans call ‘Catalunya Norte’. While we are used to consider France richer than Spain, the French side of Catalunya (for the French, Roussillon) is actually poorer: while the Spanish side was the driving region of industrialisation, and produced a very rich bourgeoisie, the French one is just a rural peripheral region. Add to this the EU cohesion funds for Spain, but not for France, and possibly a better self-government in Catalunya (Sur) than the centralised French administration of Roussillom, and it becomes clear why as soon as you cross the border northwards the roads are worse, more houses are empty or run down, there is less economic activity and overall you feel going back in time. Take Prats de Melló, a pretty medieval village once linked to Melló on the South Catalan side: there are Catalan flags here too, but there is no press in Catalan language, and despite good wine and local produce, there is little of the pulsating innovation of (South) Catalan cuisine (I will get back to this in another blog). In a way, Prats is more atmospheric, exactly because not as neat and revamped as the (South) Catalan villages. But when you drive back South, admiration strikes you again.Prats de Mello

Maybe the best proof of Catalan civilisation is not even the heritage itself. It is how accessible the heritage is made. All is explained in at least three, often four languages. Even more, nearly all of the many Barcelona’s museums are accessible to disabled, including the blind, and in many cases those with learning disability. Having spent some time, long ago, accompanying learning disabled through Milan’s museums, I remember how great experiences they may be, but how little support there was – now this is starting to be available, for the benefit also of an emerging category of visitors, people with Alzheimer.

Then there’s the language. For me, fighting to get my Spanish to acceptable standards, Catalan is a bit of a turn off: written, it is perfectly intelligible, but the sound is not to my liking, although it makes a good ingredient to chansons, also thanks to its similarity to French. Still, I admire its centenary resilience and its respectable production: Jaume Cabré’s Jo Confesso is the book event of the year in Spain. His previous Les Veus de Panamo got eleven translations and sold millions across the globe, this one should also get an English one and reach the depressingly insular British bookshops.

The Catalan language, right in the days I was there, was however the target of a ruling by the Catalan High Court, deciding that Castellano should also be offered as medium language in Catalan schools. Imagine a Belgian court imposing French in Flemish schools or a Canadian one imposing English in the ones of Québec, and you can guess the uproar. All Catalan parties protested, with only the rightwing Partido Popular welcoming the ruling, which in turns threatens the Catalan ruling coalition between them and the Catalan nationalists (CiU). The Catalan government has appealed the decision and refuses to move an inch, saying that there already three hours of Castellano per week, and that anyway Catalan children already get better exam results in that language than those of many Spanish-only regions. Not only: education in Catalan is indispensible for social cohesion and to avoid the segregation of immigrants in second-class Castellano ghettoes. Castellano defenders reply that it is actually Catalan teaching that marginalises Castellan speakers, whose educational attainment in Catalunya is much lower than for Catalan native speakers. I’d say that social cohesion is more important than attainment, and long live linguistic variety. Even when it means defending the language I don’t speak.

July 05, 2011

Museums and exhibitions, Madrid and Barcelona

As already in Berlin, an extended stay in Madrid and Barcelona allowed me the time for visiting the local museums at human pace. It matters little that I had already seen them most, and not just because fantastic works like Guernica or Bosch´s Jardín de las Delicias never tire. Museums grow, expand and change.

Some have new architectonically interesting extensions: it's the case of the Reina Sofía and the Prado in Madrid , but even more of the Museo Picasso in Barcelona. When opened in 1962 it was hidden in the narrow medieval Montcada street, as it was more than inconvenient for the regime. It kept enlarging and the last expansion has just been presented. Its crystal walls contrast well with the medieval buildings as a good example of 'old meets new', and, when inaugurated, will provide a new main entrance from Jaume Sabartés Square and possibly reduce the overcrowding. Although, as far as Picasso Museums go, I will probably keep preferring the more orderly and thorough Parisian one.Picasso Museum

Santa Maria del Taull, XIIaCThen there are the new or re-opened collections. In particular, after a long closure, the Romanesque collection of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya has just reopened. Its collections of frescoes from the Romanesque churches scattered around the mountains, from a time when Catalonia was a ‘world’ power, has been carefully readjusted, with more realistic lighting and a more respectful background paint. The videos on the ‘ripping’ technique used in 1919-1923 to remove the paintings from the Churches, to save them from traffickers and – unknowingly – from the anarchist devastation that would have exploded few years later, are also gripping. Overall, as the Museum director says, Maite Ocaña says, the collections has recovered its ‘mysticism and spirituality’ – which is the essence of Romanesque art after all.

In Madrid, instead, since the last time I was there the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum has added the international part of the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, which the former-Miss Spain baroness collected over the 1990s: it could go under the title ‘how many masterpieces you can collect in a decade if money is not an issue’.

Then there are also the temporary exhibitions, many of direct appeal to me. The ‘Polonia’ one in Madrid’s Royal Palace (until the 4th of September) presents Leonardo’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’. But that is a painting I know well from its home in the Kraków’s Czartoryskich museum, where it can be admired closely in total quiet and with the intimacy it deserves (after all the Lady, Cecilia Gallerani, was a fellow Milanese). Moreover, while exhibitions do have a point, I am not sure about ‘celebrity tours’ of first class paintings: as Botticelli’s Primavera or Leonardo’s Gioconda do not trot the globe, the Lady shouldn’t either. So I refused to queue for her in Madrid. By the way, after Madrid she will come to London, but I repeat: don’t queue in London – wait and go to Kraków.

A more intriguing exhibition was ‘Heroínas’ in the Thyssen-Burnemisza (already over, sorry). It aimed at presenting women as ‘subjects’ rather than ‘objects’ throughout art history: that is not as doing-nothing beauties and saints, but as 'empowered' heroines, athletes, readers, mystics etc, and of course as painters too, especially if self-portraying (Sofonisba Anguissola’s is particularly good). If the idea may sound soppy, just go to the Prado immediately after: and among all Goya’s Mayas and Raphael’s Madonnas, you will really struggle to find works portraying women as subjects. All the Heroínas paintings do it, and very well.

Still in Madrid, and even more of professional interest for me, was the ‘Worker Photography Movement’ at the Reina Sofía (until 22nd August). The movement started in post-revolutionary Russia, equipping workers with one more revolutionary weapon, cameras. It then spread to other countries with strong communist movements, especially Germany, Austria, Belgium and Czech Republic, to the USA and to a much lesser extent Britain and Mexico. Many photographs are exceptional in both exalting the dignity of the worker while documenting the abjection of the surrounding conditions – although those from the Soviet Union, except the very first ones, obviously do only the first of these jobs. The works are presented with lots of contextual materials and one can spend hours reading pages of worker-photography magazines from different countries. The only bewildering part is the Spanish one, which is not about workers but about the Civil War: who thought that they were the same thing? Or is the Civil War the only thing about the XX Century they can sell to tourists in Madrid?

Over here, in Barcelona, the Picasso Museum presents ‘Feasting on Paris. Picasso 1900-1907’ (until the 16th October). Originally at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Van Gogh is particularly well presented among the sources of inspirations that Picasso found during his first visit to Paris. By directly confronting Picasso’s works to his predecessors, the aim of the exhibition is defending Pablo from the (rather idiotic, in my view) charges of having done nothing new. In this, the exhibition is successful, although the impression is that Picasso was lucky that in 1900-1907 they had not yet invented plagiarism-detecting software.

And a final personal impression. One of the very first works in the exhibition is Picasso’s amusing little drawing of himself arriving to Paris. It’s one of my favourite pieces from the Berggruen museum in Berlin, which I had re-seen last Autumn. Is Picasso going around Europe with me?

March 15, 2011

George Shaw's Tile Hill paintings: my neighbourhood or the universal English working class estate?

A 4-hour train journey across England to go from an anonymous post-war working class estate in Coventry to Newcastle... to see paintings of the same anonymous post-war working class estate. That sounds like a great week-end plan.

BalticGeorge Shaw’s ‘The Sly and Unseen Day’ exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is worth it. And Tile Hill is worth it too.

Shaw made his paintings over the 1996-2010 period, on the basis of an archive of thousands of photographs he took around the Tile Hill estate, where he grew up. He took many of the photos with his late father, who had come to Tile Hill from Ireland, like many others. Painting from pictures, rather than from real life, reduces the light’s dynamic range (much detail is lost in shadows) and flattens the perspective, but also allows painting at strange times and under bad weather conditions – especially rain – while keeping an indirect individual link to the place. Shaw uses an unfashionable, humble, almost weird material: Humbrol enamel paint. This reminds of simple craftwork in the shed, and gives a very simplified and artificial colouring: more industrial than natural. The perspective and composition are also very simple – as from a child’s eye.

Subject of the paintings (owned by various collections including Tate, Deutsche Bank - some are of Warwick's Mead Gallery) are Tile Hill corners that mean something to the painter: a phone box no longer used; the school entrance; his house; old garages; what remains of a demolished pub; a path in the woods; a subway. There is no human figure in any painting, nothing happens. You have to think to interpret what sort of life could have been there, why a certain path, a certain boarded window may be important. No easy symbolism, but a very strong statement of what art is about, and where it comes from.

To see the exhibition coming from Tile Hill makes a double impression. The first instinct is to locate the apparently anonymous locations: where exactly is that garage, that corner, that tree? Then, there is the reaction that it is quite unfair, the paintings focussing on the abandoned, decadent parts in an apparently depressing manner. But after these neighbourhood-provincial reactions, a further look discovers all the depth of artistic creation. The neo-Romantic references, especially with the suburban landscapes echoing, maybe mocking the Pre-Raphaelites. The poetic references to Larkin on Coventry, where 'my childhood was unspent' - and 'it is not the place's fault - nothing, like something happens anywhere'. The historical references, from old trees that were there before the estate, to peeping holes in a fence, reminders of Coventry’s legendary Peeping Tom from the medieval Lady Godiva story – in Shaw’s words ‘a classic British story – sex, class and realism'. Indeed, Shaw is a ‘classist’ artist, despising the ideological, un-experiential ‘higher-class’ art and affirming his working class roots strongly, even though avoiding political language, also in the way he talks about his work. The paintings are intimate – but in their artistic content they are also universal.

Tile Hill is a good place to reflect over time, memory, decadence. It is right in the middle of England and could be seen as representative of all working class estates in the country, but that's not factually precise: the place has its individual history. It was built for the ‘new’ working class, largely from Ireland, for the factories nearby - 'everyone either worked at Standard or at Massey-Ferguson', remembers Shaw. (According to the Acorn classification my street’s typical demographic definition is ‘large families with low level of education’: my house is an outlier, with a popolation of 2 and 100% PhD-level education). It was a 'new town', after the old Coventry had been destroyed by the 1940 bombing. Some of it was intended as progressive, innovative urbanism; especially the Jardine Crescent estate, a circle of brutalist housing blocks encircling a common and community services: you can still tell the utopia of such planning. Shaw paints the burnt or razed pubs, the abandoned playgrounds or football pitches, the boarded houses. Indeed, since the 1980s Tile Hill has suffered serious decline, like most of Coventry (1980s Coventry, and Warwick University, are portrayed in a sweet-sour sauce in the fine short novel by Jonathan Coe, A Touch of Love). The factories have gone and Tile Hill is the seventh poorest of 230 parishes in Coventry. In some regards the decline goes on: the Irish club where I used to go to watch football, attached to the Catholic Church and Catholic school where Shaw grew up, has just closed down, killed by the smoking ban and by cheap supermarket booze. However, something also develops on the ashes. On Jardine Crescent, on the place of desolate prefabs painted by Shaw, there are now an impressive Youth Centre, a nice library, a new health centre. The old craftsmanship of Shaw’s enamel paint has not disappeared, and on the same Jardine Crescent survives a fantastic family bike shop. The woods are being managed and kept well - one point on which Tile Hill differs from the average estate is the amount of parks and woodland. It is a continuous fight against destruction: the library is at risk thanks to the vandalic cuts of the Tories. Some regeneration is replacing services (Tile Hill college) and social housing with more anonymous middle-class housing, although there is still no systematic speculation-driven effort at ‘gentrification’, as for instance at London’s Heygate.

OuseburnNewcastle, vibrant and friendly northern city with its bars, its arty scene in regenerated industrial Ouseburn, its spectacular river and its labour movement traditions (the Jarrow Crusade) is an appropriate setting for this arty celebration of the quintessential, but actually unique, English working class estate.

Postscript. The train journey back was disrupted, as usual given the state of British railways. Trains were not running to Tile Hill, because no London Midland’s train drivers volunteered for Sunday work. The union is in dispute after the company dropped the special Sunday pay rate. Even if Sunday work is voluntary, the company says that the refusal to work amounts to a strike and refused to provide replacement services or to refund my ticket. But it is not an official strike and after losing the patience of its employees London Midland is on the path to lose the patience of passengers.

December 22, 2010

Tschüß Berlin!

lamp post

Airports are open, so my three-month stay in Berlin ends today. Time for some summary reflections on this city, starting from the obvious: 3 months is not nearly enough to experience a city as large, varied and complex as Berlin.

Arm aber sexy

“Poor but sexy” is Berliners’ self-portrayal, starting from mayor Wowereit who, as a gay, can avoid the charge of sexism the use of the S word would involve in more PC countries. It’s an honest self-portrayal. Berlin is by far the cheapest capital of western Europe, and cheaper even than some eastern European capitals – after all, it still is a half-Eastern European city, and the other half wasn’t even a capital until quite recently. A near-20% unemployment rate does moderate prices. In all other European capitals the majority tends to be money-rich but time-poor, with an effect of hurry, selfishness, arrogance. Berlin is different: people have time rather than money, good taste rather than expensive cloths, bikes rather than SUV, spend the week-end in the parks and lakes rather than on foreign breaks.

It may change. The completely redeveloped Mitte may have some great new architecture, but is already undistinguishable from any downtown in Europe or USA. And in 2009 Berlin has overtaken Rome as third most-visited city in Europe (after Paris and London): demand is bound to increase prices and distort habits. But Berlin, while continuously changing, also develops forms of resistance. Gradual gentrification in once-popular neighbourhoods (first Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, then Kreuzberg, now North Neukölln…) meets opposition, and so does tourism. The radical Left’s magazine Interim has launched, for 2011, an anti-tourism campaign with sabotage and disruption of hotels and tourist sights. Even if this materialises, if you visit Berlin in 2011 you have two solutions: first, do what is logic anyway, throw the Lonely Planet into the bin and stay off the beaten track, thereby avoiding the protests; alternatively, accept that the radical Left is itself a Berlin attraction, and join in, maybe asking passer-byes to take souvenir pictures of you throwing eggs at the sightseeing bus under the Brandenburger Tor.

Not only Currywurst

Germans share with Brits a dubious record: nations that spend the smallest share of their income on food. So none comes to Germany expecting gastronomic revelations. As an advantage over the Brits, Germans at least have their practical, efficient functionality: so food at least is real, not junk. I like the markets with, in Autumn, the central European wild mushrooms, root vegetables, apples & pears, smoked freshwater fish (eel!), cooked meat (Blutwurst!). And bakeries, despite the expansion of chains, are mostly still real bakeries making a large variety of excellent bread (alongside less inspired cakes): my street has seven bakers, more than the whole of Coventry. Imbiss kiosks, with their shared standing tables, offer more reasonable food in a more social setting than fast food chains or British fish & chips – even if I believe the Berlin’s pride “currywurst” should have remained what it originally was: a mistake, not a recipe.

Restaurants and bars tend to offer reasonable, reliable, comfortable fare for very reasonable prices – from the traditional potato soup, Eisbein (pork hock) and calve liver, to, increasingly, healthier things. Execution and service tend to be very skilled, thanks to the German vocational training system, and waiters strike the right mid-way between Italian overfriendliness and French stuffyness. In the huge surrounding parks you can also have idyllic near-wilderness experiences in outposts such as the Alte Fischerhütte or the Forsthaus Paulsborn. Italian restaurants are very popular, also thanks to the large Italian ex-Gastarbeiter population, but having tried a few I was just confirmed in my belief that yes, you can eat fantastic Italian food outside Italy, but only if you pay for it more than the price of a ticket to Italy. A newer and more interesting fashion is Austrian food, with cafes, patisseries, delicatessen shops and restaurants: try Sebastian Frank’s Horváth in Kreuzberg before it is deluged with Michelin stars. For more ambitious German food, in minimalistic settings, “N°45” on the new-posh Kollowitzplatz (with its organic Bio-market for VIPs, equivalent of London’s Borough Market or Paris’ organic Sunday market on Bd Raspail) cooks with local, Brandenburg ingredients, extremely sophisticated techniques, but none of the obsession with presentation and concept that overburdens the nouvelle cuisine of France or Britain. So Berlin’s food is, too, “arm aber sexy”.

White multiculturalism

Angela Merkel may repeat that multiculturalism – whatever she means by it - has failed, but in Berlin, in an important aspect of European culture, it is alive and well: you can find bars to watch, with the corresponding community, food and beer, just any European football league: Italian, Turkish, English, Spanish… And when the time comes for Germany-Turkey in the Olympiastadium, the 80,000 public is evenly split between Germans and Turks, Özil scores a fine goal for Germany, and after the game the injury and arrest count is three times lower than for the average second-league Hertha game.

On the other side, while eastern Europeans and southern Europeans (including many Turks) blend in a rather lively way, in comparison with other large western European cities Berlin is still remarkably white, especially in the eastern part, except for some residual ex-DDR Vietnamese (who cook well, by the way). I hear repeatedly that blacks don’t feel welcome, also in comparison to the rest of (western) Europe. Recent research (from Bielefeld’s sociologists, as well as from Münster’s) points that Germans are more hostile to non-Europeans, Muslims and Jews (!) than the neighbouring nations – although, at least, not in an “aggressive” way: fear of the unknown more than hatred of something real. Germany‘s enviable record of not having a significant rightwing-populist party may not last for long – so far, the populist Right had little space because the Linke covered social discontent, and the FDP covered the middle classes’ – but now the FDP tax populism has imploded (in the opinion polls the party is down to 3%, from 15% last year, good omen for the British Lib-Dems), while the Linke is deeply split.

Public transport

The best mean of transport in spacious, green and flat Berlin is the bicycle, but the round-the-clock public transport (also considering the large investment that was needed to link the eastern and western networks) is not bad. Or so I thought until, in November, I was informed that my monthly pass was extended for two more weeks, as a compensation for the poor level of service offered – which I hadn’t even noticed: used to Italian, Polish and British standards, I don’t have high expectations. Actually, does this extension-compensation principle apply to the rest of the EU? I should be entitled to a few years free transport in Milan and in the West Midlands…

In fact the disservice (again over the last few weeks due to snow) was limited to the S-Bahn, the bit which has been privatised (to Deutsche Bahn), while municipal buses, tramways and U-Bahn are perfect. Just another lesson on privatisation and efficiency…


German newspapers are as thick and heavy as the British ones, but have much less advertising and much more to read. They are also more old-fashion: mostly broadsheet, with a focus on main news rather than investigative journalism or comment, and rather similar titles to each others and to the previous night TV news. I wonder if they can survive for long in this way in the internet era. For a three-month stay, I came to enjoy their rather old style, especially when reading them in the already old-style decadent setting of Berlin’s cafés, and their international coverage is impressive (for British newspapers, foreign news mostly means “US+Commonwealth+British tourists abroad”, and for Italian newspapers, it mostly means “what the world says of Italy”). Serious national papers are also more numerous than in any other EU country (stricter antitrust laws than in UK or Italy), which must be good for democracy.

While the main German papers are from West Germany, Berlin has its good share of serious papers: Tagesspiegel, Berliner Morgenpost, Berliner Zeitung. Good local news pages across Germany may partly explain a new wave of local-issues collective action across the country. I became affectionate to the Berliner Zeitung, originally from East Berlin, left-of-centre, similar look to the serious Zürcher Zeitung but lighter, proving that you can write short but non-nonsense articles, and devote much space to culture (it collaborates with the Frankfurter Rundschau). But the best Berlin’s paper is Tageszeitung, or taz, originally from the New Left and Kreuzberg’s occupied houses, now a bit too close to the Greens but still with excellent writing. And Berlin even has two other newspapers more to the Left: the former-SED Neues Deutschland and the former FDJ (DDR Youth) Junge Welt. Both a bit too propaganda-like to my taste, but with interesting information on union issues.


The problem is the excess of choice, source of dilemmas and regrets as you will miss 99.9% of the 3 thick pages of events published in the newspapers everyday. Cabaret in French, opera in Italian, talks in English, songs in Russian… Large choice of international, original language films, even if the Hollywood blockbusters are (deservedly) dubbed. The best concert hall and the best philharmonic orchestra in the world (with a new director from Birmingham, how little the world is).

And the museums. I have an ambivalent attitude to the museums. When I first visit places, they are never a priority (I confess to have seen no New York museum after three stays there): I have so many art books at home that the added value of seeing the original after the reproduction is marginal, in comparison to the irrepleceable and irreproduceable value of experiencing new quarters, views, foods; and most museums are just too big and crowded to provide a pleasant experience when visited in a hurry. But if I stay in a place for longer, and I can find the right time (Monday 9am, Tuesday 9pm…) to go, I love them and can’t understand how the locals can ignore their offerings, maybe because they have already seen them 20 years ago. Berlin is phenomenal in this regard. The Museumsinsel is being modernised and the ‘new’ Neues Museum and Bodemuseum are spectacular, with the right light for each individual work. The Zeughaus and the Judisches Museum are as instructive and absorbing as the best history books. On the Freie Universität campus, just out of the office for my lunch breaks, there are the Dahlem ethnographic and Asian museums, excellent compensations for an otherwise Eurocentric city. The Hamburger Bahnhof hosts amazing contemporary exhibitions in an exceptionally spacious setting. But my old favourite is still the Berggruen Sammlung – now, after his death, Berggruen Museum. A relatively small museum in a homely setting, with only masterpieces from Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Giacometti, individually chosen with a strong personal touch by Berggruen himself while he was helping Picasso & Co to sell (what a difficult job): I leave it as happy as after having seen old friends, not museum pieces.

Brandenburger Tor

December 11, 2010

Soma: art between science, religion – and reindeer

The Hamburger Bahnhof, a derelict station in no man’s land at the times of the Wall, claims now to be the biggest contemporary art museum in Europe – at least in the narrow sense of art from 1960 (Museum für Gegenwart, i.e. Museum of the Present). Its size allows it to currently host the unique exhibition by Carsten Höller, “Soma”.Soma

Soma is the miraculous drink allowing enlightenment and access to the divine sphere in the Ringveda, the oldest Hindu scripture (and, from the 2nd millennium BC, arguably the oldest surviving religious scripture overall). As it happens after so much time, nobody remembers the nature of this Soma, but since the XIX century philologists, scientists and ethnologists have converged over the hypothesis that the decisive ingredient was the fly amanita mushroom. Wait: the fly amanita mushroom is poisonous, so how could they drink its extract? Simple, by filtering – and the most likely way the Central Asian tribes of 4,000 years ago could filter it is through the kidneys of their fellow reindeer, who, themselves, are keen fly amanita eaters. Reindeer urine (possibly with some taste corrector) should have been the basis of Soma and the key to knowledge and to the divine sphere.

This is hitherto just speculative hypothesis. Carsten Höller, who has a Habilitation (second PhD) in agriculture sciences and whose artistic work focuses on the relation between science and art, as well as on human interactions (e.g. the huge “Test Site” in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2006), proposes now an experiment. The Hamburger Bahnhof is split into two symmetric parts. In each there are six reindeer, who are fed large amount of (frozen) fly amanita. Their urine is collected and stored. In each half there are then three species of experiment animals: twelve canaries, four mice and two flies. Over weeks, it can be observed whether the animals on one side start behaving differently: if they drink Soma, will they achieve enlightenment? As science requires, the experiment is double-blind: the animals are not told whether they are fed Soma or just some placebo. Nor are the visitors, as they become, in their interactions, part of the experiment: we do not know which group (if at all!) is fed Soma, and which one is there just for control.

When it starts becoming a bit extravagant is with the double bed in the middle of the hall: here, for just €1,000/night, it is possible to spend the night and observe, undisturbed by other humans, whether maybe the animals achieve the enlightenment when the lights are off and the museum is closed (unfortunately, it is already fully booked until the end of the exhibition).

There’s no actual experimenting: nobody takes any note, and the number of animals is too small as a sample. An experiment is turned into artistic experience and scientific observation into aesthetic observation (the lucky Germans as usual have two words for “observing”: betrachten and beobachten).

In the process, on a conceptual level the visit raises a number of questions as to the impossible communication between science and religion, as to the role of art between the two, and as to the possibility of objective observation. Can humans make scientific experiments on the deepest aspects of humanity? Well, as a social scientist, I found there enough to short-circuit positivists and critical realists.

On the human visitors, the experiment seems to me successful: after overcoming the initial scepticism and incredulity, and once got used to the smell (Soma must have been an acquired taste), visitors spend hours observing the animals and trying to guess which ones are enlightened. Much is pondered about the fact that one of the two canary cages has started weighting more than the other: is it because enlightened birds become lighter? or heavier? A pseudo-scientific idea, in its artistic form, inspires metaphysical questioning.

A spectacular and exhilarating creation, as contemporary art can do. Only in Berlin, until the 6th February 2011. After then, the reindeer will go back to their native Sweden.

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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