All 2 entries tagged Europe

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September 30, 2012

End of the journey and the blog: from European cafes to kindle?

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.

Italian breakfastBut 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. Reading the Hamburger Abendblatt with my niece

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.

Turkish lifeThe 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.

July 10, 2012

Ending the Euro–Tour in America

With the end of June, officially, my 2-year research Tour of Europe has ended. I will keep this blog alive during the Summer, to report on local events (Olympics, Edinburgh Festival) and on a trip to Portugal, as well as the new unavoidable instalments of the Eurocrisis. But from October I will be back to teaching, take on more administrative tasks and all typing energies will need to be channelled to academic writing (apprently, this blog does not count as research publication). Not that anyone would be interested in a blog on Around Coventry, anyway.

And where did I end my 24-month European Tour? I thought of the Arc de Triomphe as in the Tour the France or Piazza del Duomo as in Giro d’Italia, and I inquired about the Olympic Stadium in London as in the Olympic marathon. But in order not to be partial among European countries, I eventually concluded outside Europe entirely, in its sociological mirror: the USA. Bar a passing touch-base on the Asian side of Istanbul, I had spent my two years entirely within the old continent. From a global perspective, I have stayed put in my little comfortable hole the whole time.

LibraryDespite the heat, it was worth spending 10 days on the East Coast and taking some healthy distance from Europe, without however really breaking away from it. The first stop was in Boston, as European as the States can get. I really realised I was in America on the second morning, when having breakfast in the same (European-style) cafe as the day before, and the waitress welcomed me with a loud, smiley “oh, hello! how are you todaaaay?! Same coffee as usual?” In Paris or Vienna, it takes 40 years to get the same degree of personal warmth from a cafe waiter as I had achieved by ordering two breakfasts in Boston.

It was in Boston that I could observe and discuss important news, from Europe where a hard-bargaining super-Mario Monti gained new money for the European South – oops, sorry, for the banks with debts in the European South, and from the US with the confusing Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare. It was amusing to observe Romney attacking Obamacare from Massuchussets, the same state where he introduced an identical reform... The ruling looks like a Pyrrhic victory for Obama: the penalties for not taking insurance are low and ineffective, having the law rejected on commerce rules undermines any improvement, and having it upheld as a tax does not make it popular. And again on Euronews, I was in a very mobilised North End (Little Italy) on the 1st of July for the Euro final – I prefer to remember the semifinal, which I watched in a sport bar in the company of, among others, the influential German professor... and I was surprised by how easily I could win an argument with him.

Franklin BridgeAfter Boston, a slow train journey away, it was the time of the much more American Philadelphia, spot on for the 4th of July. The heat didn’t prevent me to explore a bit, despite a busy schedule. At the Constitution Centre, arguably the largest and most important civic education facility in the world, there was an exhibition on Bruce Springsteen, ‘From Asbury Park to the Promised Land’ – it was meant about his link with the American polity, but somehow Woodie Guthrie’s influence was forgotten and the Boss’ recent more political songs were ignored. The US were in a much better light on the night of the 4th of July, with half a million people, of all colours, attending the concert and fireworks, peaceful, respectful and relaxed – they even did not mind having their pictures taken. America at its impressive best – shame that it won’t last like this for more than one night, and even during that night there three people were shot on the next street...

On the previous night, after a meal in Chinatown, I had had the brilliant idea of convincing a couple of friends to head to Northern Liberties, a reportedly lively alternative area with good live music. I had grossly miscalculated American distances and a 10-minute walk became a very long journey through the worst neighbourhoods of North Philadelphia. It was all fun in a way, although some became slightly concerned when two homeless blokes we asked for directions told us that they would avoid the neighbourhood we were entering...

ManhattanFinally, I had 48 hours spare in New York, a place with which I hold a strong love/hate relationship due to old scores, and which in July is definitely not at its best. I stayed in beautiful black, and now more precisely black middle class Harlem, but music clubs were emptyish and tired (anyway, in the jazz/blues ones the only blacks are on stage - better with hip-hop, but I didn't make it to the big festival in Brooklyn). To escape the heat I wondered around some museums, Harlem Studio’s (excellent exhibit on the Caribbean), the MOMA (exhibits on photography, on fellow Italian, but even more fellow world citizen Alghiero Boetti, and most notably ‘Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream’, a timely reflection of the architectural and social disaster of the suburbs and on their alternatives) and the Met (all, more, but best?). The heat in New York tempted me to try the just opened new 1,500 people McCarren swimming pool complex in Brooklyn. Mind you, it is a public, free swimming pool complex: even America, sometimes, needs some important public, free services.

But I am already back to rainy England. Already missing the sun and the enthusiasm, but not really the food: after ten days of American diet I do not want to see a hamburger or a steak sandwich (the cheesesteaks of Philadelphia in particular) for at least a year. Of course, there are lots of alternatives in that land of opportunity. In Boston I had lobster in all shapes, which was fun even though the North Atlantic lobster is just a poor relative of the majestic Mediterranean lobster I used to have as a child as Sunday lunch at my granny’s in Sicily. In Philadelphia I spent time getting lost in the extremely varied Reading Terminal food market, and in New York you can eat as good food as anywhere. But still, behind its freedom and diversity, the American dream, even gastronomically, suffers from some serious imbalances.

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