Monday, August 6, 2007

bye bye Barcelona

A wave of tears has flooded my keyboard, rendering me incapable of typing for the moment. Here, however, is a pic that captures a real slice of the city for me. The dialogue sign says: "Got your phone? Your wallet? YOUR TRASH?" Similar signs in multiple languages pop up along the city beach. A small touch, but indicative of the attitude here: trash on the sand is definitely a problem, but how can we address it in a "cool" way that might earn respect and compliance, rather than sticking a generic "No Littering" sign to be ignored? 
Ah, Barcelona, how I will miss your slightly-trash-strewn shores!

Sitges getaway, sans tourists

Last weekend I had the good fortune to escape the oppressive, intense, competitive atmosphere of Bcn and enjoy a relaxing wknd in Sitges (pronounced SIT-jess). My lovely roommate B’s family owns a great flat in a quiet, modern part of town--one of those tastefully designed "Mediterranean" developments on a hillside that keeps things simple and white and makes the most of its views. In addition to a terraza with ocean view, they have a rooftop with an even better 360* panorama. Pictured above are B, T, C, E and E, various of the 14 people who crashed that wknd. Things were kept simple: we ate, drank, slept, and swam, all in prodigious quantities. Some of the participants, who will remain nameless, were so content with the rooftop (which comes with lawn furniture, shower, bbq, and perpetual breeze) that they never actually set foot on the beach. A memorable highlight was the majestic full moon, which some of us watched rise like a specter over the ocean from the beach as it got dark. We tracked the moon’s arc from the horizon as it got higher and brighter, all the way till 4am, when it started to get blurry for some reason. Then I passed out.

Sitges, whose central church can be seen rising in the background, became an important town in the 18th century when Spaniards built nice houses there upon returning from the New World, where they’d become wealthy. Then, toward the end of the 19th century, Sitges hit the big time, becoming a center of the modernist movement in Catalunya. A century later, the town had become known for its pretty cobblestoned streets, lovely beaches, and massive influx of gay vacationers and accompanying party scene. The central beaches during the wknd are disgracefully packed—to the point where I can’t fathom how those people actually enjoy being on the beach: it’s just skin, umbrellas and a couple of patches of sand. (It reminded me of some of the worst parts of the Costa del Sol, the difference being that at least this town has a genuinely Spanish old town and culture, whereas the latter in parts feels more like a British (or German) colony. I get queezy just thinking about it.)

It’s a bit sad to see a town with a distinct personality just get taken over by tourism and turn into a more generic coastal destination. I got the same feeling during the highest part of high season in Tarifa (Cadiz, Andalucia) when we were living down there. Tourists bring money, development, and prestige, but can absolutely kill the unique feeling of a town. Or change it, at least. The problem with Spain's ever-developing tourism industry is that there's no end in sight to an approach that privileges quantity over quality. Sitges seemed much more exciting when I was there 9 years ago, possibly because the beaches were less crowded, but more likely because I didn't think about these sorts of things. It's certainly a bad sign that places like Tarifa--which is much harder to get to--are also being overwhelmed. Even in 2002, when we lived there, locals were predicting the end of the charm and the beginning of the phase of the "guay kite-surfero," or the cool kite surfer type. Prices were already going up, because wealthy extreme sports-types and Northern Europeans were installing boutique hotels and pretentious bars. For a while it's great, I suppose, because one feels a sleepy town waking up and becoming cool. It was a mark of pride for a Spaniard to have one of these famous bright Tarifa t-shirts, with a wispy kite-surfer mascot breezing along. Now it's passe-- you see a dozen of them every day in Barcelona and Madrid. In short, the slippery slope effect in beach tourism can be an ugly phenomenon (here's a useful look at the impact of tourism on Sitges). Many in Spain still fear a double crash of the housing market and the tourism market as cheaper destinations appear (Northern Africa?), a scenario that would leave Spain blighted with ugly concrete developments, too many golf courses, and a collective memory of simpler, better times.

If you’re working in the industry, you probably don’t care; but I’m sure the Sitges locals are pretty fed up with the summer deluge. The smart ones probably find some other beach to go to, and rent out their flats to some pasty Englishman! Luckily for us, B’s apartment was by the port, because our “local” beach, the northernmost, was the finest in town. We couldn't complain. And oh, how that moon had us transfixed!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

US addiction to fame: worse than EUrope?

In a breathless and damning op-ed today, James Carroll argues that “An obsessive deference to [such] fame, and an all-consuming preoccupation with it, has become the defining mark of American culture.”

Carroll argues that the American adoration of fame is either worsened or caused by (I’m not sure which) our lack of historical background. This seems to me at once partly correct and complete bullshit. I’m a bit sick of facile arguments chronicling our “crack cocaine” addiction to fame and celebrity, as if other nations didn't share the same weaknesses--which, once a pop culture sets in, are universal. Though I haven’t measured it, Europeans seem to have just as many idiotic gossip magazines, fashion magazines, become-famous TV contests, reality shows, etc, as we do. And they can have just as selective a memory of history as we Americans, or anyone else.

Carroll makes some useful observations about the destructiveness of our capitalist (and profit-obsessed) mentality, and there is no doubting our obsession with celebrity. He also remarks that the “conjuring of the appearance of opposition where none actually exists has been mandated by the American political system since the onset of the Cold War.” I would agree with the driving idea behind both claims, but I’m still not sure about the connection to celebrity and fame here. The column also rests, bizarrely, on a comparison between Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, a difference which “matters,” though I’m not sure why.  Thus, when he concludes—without mentioning other countries’ stances on celebrity culture—that “under the martial law that implicitly governs the United States, history can never be invoked except for its celebrity value - not even history in the making,” Wait— what?

I may have had too long a weekend in the sun (it’s finally hot in Bcn), but what am I missing here? In a globalized world, Europeans seem to exhibit more and more of these “American” traits. In Why the Rest Hates the West, Meic Pearse observed that people around the world see Western societies as being ones that "derogate religion, exalt triviality (sports, entertainment, fashion), endorse sexual shamelessness, deprecate family, and discard honor." Europeans are implicated in the shameful behavior.

And if some countries tend not to need to find enemies, my immediate reactions are either that they are too small or weak to create enemies or take action against them; or they weren’t looking hard enough when enemies were there (WWII neutrals like Switzerland and Sweden; the EU during the breakup of Yugoslavia).

In short, Carroll does a disservice to his fellow liberals by writing a sloppy (uhh...Marxist?) critique of the American culture of celebrity that would be more appropriate of an upstart Masters candidate (or undergrad).

I leave the question to you, diligent readers, astute observers, sagacious thinkers: do Americans really value celebrity over history to the extent that Carroll implies, and more than others? Is he making a mostly good point that I am missing? Or is he full of hot air?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Update: EU constitution, er, REFORM treaty

Call it what you will, it’s looking like the secret is out on the latest EU Treaty. The secret is that the sexy new reform treaty, recently modified under Miss Mild Mannered Merkel’s leadership at an emergency Brussels summit in order to be re-presented to the public after failed referenda in France and Holland, is barely different from its predecessor. Granted, those few differences are formidable, as will the political spin put on the whole 2nd draft, but most of the treaty remains the same. This fact is the source of both critics’ ire and proponents’ glee. That is to say, the latter still like the original idea, the former still don’t. The more things change…

Now those nasty sceptics— who won’t be happy until the EU is broken and oozing internal goo like Humpty after his fall— are going to throw a tantrum. They are going to start breaking the good china in the House of EUrope until there’s nothing left to eat on and everyone reverts to animalistic grunting. So we have conservative EUroskeptics par excellence Open Europe arguing that its exhaustive analysis shows that 96 percent of the new text is the same as the rejected constitution. Sure, in quantity maybe only 10 items have changed, but that speaks nothing about the quality of the changes, idiots! What about direction, the future, sacrifice, teamwork?! No no no. Instead we have fingerpointing (with chubby little baby fingers):

"If Brown now tries to carry on pretending that this is somehow a different document, it will be one of the most audacious political lies in the last couple of decades. It would be simply ludicrous," said the group's director Neil O'Brien.

Meanwhile, proponents of the Reform Treaty are taking classic political measures in order to justify the bypassing of a national referendum: they are relying on semantic bullshit. Thus the new, strapping young British foreign minister David Miliband claims:

"The concept of a constitution has been abandoned. That is made clear in the new treaty. In that context we don't think there needs to be a constitutional referendum."
See? No wonder he got the job.

The poor reform treaty! How will it ever pass, now that people are beginning to realize it’s not really that reformed! And one of the Reforms was to take away the EUro symbols—itself a terrible sign! Joder, things are looking bleak.  Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Remembering 1992, Spain’s moment

A lovely and historic moment last night here in Bcn: the same archer who famously lit the Olympic torch with Elvin accuracy while the world watched , was invited back for a redo to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Games.

The archer, Antonio Rebollo, appears to be aging like a fine Rioja. He met the high expectations of everyone who’d seen his first shot by nailing the target again, this time from outside the stadium—a tough shot, though he did have literally years to prepare (and, most likely, exclusive use of the stadium area for target practice, along with that cool white outfit) .

Most Barcelonans look back proudly on their famous Summer Games, “the best ever,” according to ex-Olympic Committee honcho Juan Antonio Samaranch (a Catalan). They were certainly the best Olympics I have ever been to. Although I was only 14, the trip I took with my father to Spain that summer was unforgettable—in retrospect, it’s clear what a watershed year it was for the country, one which set it on the path to its current esteemed place in Europe.

With the crazy decade of the Movida (popularized by Almodovar in his early films) following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain had already undergone a notable transition into capitalist democracy. But 1992 set the world’s eyes on the country in a way that can’t easily be repeated.

Madrid was named the cultural capital of Europe, and Sevilla was hosting the funky futuristic World Expo. Both of these medium-term events brought with them significant monetary, cultural, and infrastructural advances. The crowning jewel of this Year of Spain was the public unveiling of the hip new Barcelona. During the Olympics, it really was a magical city filled with a palpable spirit of glee and camaraderie. It was like the good old days: the city looked gorgeous and shiny and new, the events and housing went off without a hitch, and the US Dream Team even won the Gold Medal in basketball (though they spurned the spartan Olympic Village accomodations for a luxury hotel). The sporting highlight for me was making my first trip to the Nou Camp stadium (which I revisited in June to watch Barcelona throw away their season by giving up a last-minute tie to crosstown rivals Espanyol) for the gold medal soccer match, which the hosts won by scoring with 2 minutes left against Poland. Imagine 100,000 Spaniards going bonkers in a stadium-shaking, flag-waving goosebumpfest, singing the classis Olé! Olé Olé Olé! song for hours afterward. I was hooked.

As amazing as the Games were, the real triumph of Barcelona '92 was one of urban planning, toward the long-term goal of achieving a fully integrated and dynamic city of international reknown.

As most residents will explain to guests—say, upon bringing them to the Olympic Village, beach areas, or Montjuic—much of the city was renovated or rebuilt in preparation for the Games. The scale of investment and work is staggering, but it has become a paragon of large-scale urban renewal projects around the world, a phenomenon still being studied today.

This is not to say that the operation was carried out perfectly, because it wasn’t, but one simply cannot compare the pre- and post-Olympic Barcelonas. Barcelona’s current success and beauty are the result of a bold (yet logical, I would think) vision, good teamwork, and not-that-much corruption getting in the way.

In preparation for the Games, the inustrialized and largely abandoned beachfront, several km worth, was cleaned up and re-introduced to the city; the Olympic Village was turned into long-term housing; it served as the motor for the eventual comeback of the industrial, bleak Poble Nou neighbourhood. A new wave of renovations continues, as Barcelona expands its seafront amenities and Poble Nou (perhaps the Williamsburg of Bcn) renovation toward the Diagonal Mar area, while also consolidating the infrastructure of the Old Town and Eixample. Projects like Diagonal Mar and the Forum will be the subject of future posts, but for now imagine them as new pieces being added on to geographically essential areas of the larger urban grid. (If you’re interested in getting a handle on the city’s history, neighborhoods, and the scope of urban renewal over the last 20 years, check out the Barcelona Field Studies center; For those of you wondering what happens when Olympic games fail on an urban renewal level, look no further than Atlanta ’96.)

A simple stroll around the old town reveals that Barcelona has always been a uniquely beautiful Euro city. However one cannot comprehend its ascent to one of the coolest cities in Europe without knowing about the Olympic project. That’s why, sitting on Bogatell beach, I always compare it with the happy scene of 15 years ago; I couldn’t imagine it any other way. I’m lucky to have developed such a personal connection with this special place, and I’m going to miss it very much.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

French gov't sick of all the thinking, putain!

No, seriously, my fellow French:

Look into my eyes... Now, think less. ...And just work more.

Have I heard this before?

Sarko the darko? He looks kind of scary in this picture next to Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who got rich as a big-time Chicago lawyer and looks like a robot in a Simpsons episode.

I still don’t believe it. Surely these are just bizarre coincidences! There must be some explanation for this blatant anti-intellectualism! Some sort of historical or philosophical background would be in order. For example, maybe his father abandoned him when he was young and forced him to work hard and depend only on himself to rise to the top? Maybe his Napoleon complex comes from being shorter than even the girls in the class and being made fun of for his atypical features?

Look, everything’s going to work out just fine with mon mec Sarko, my friends. As one of my favorite songs of all time has it: no one said... it would be easy. So put down the croissant and roll up your sleeves, you lazy frogs! You can't just sit around at home or protest every government reform-- if you want a chicken in every pot, you've got to kill some friggin chickens. Tu bouge quoi!

Just give the man some time to calm down… and think about things in between doing them.
Hey, at least he's got some great old turncoat Socialists to help him think up a way to rescue France from its morass, its malaise, its... je ne sais quoi, mais... zey are ol go-eeng to haf to woryk too-gezair.

must-see non euro fotos

Ladies and gentlemen, I am normally not one to post ‘random’ material, but some things are worth the diversion.

I made a bizarre comment earlier about a Burmese python trapped in Florida. That was a reference to an article I’d come across waaaay back this morning about this invasive species of Burmese pythons that appear to be taking over Florida. I forgot where I'd originally seen the article, but I googled my way to this pic. Now that is some nature for you!

I’ve never wanted to go to the Everglades, by the way. I mean, I wouldn’t not go if you asked me to take a nice drive and gave me a gun. But it’s not high on my list. I know it’s pretty, but it seems to me one of the last savage and brutal spots on the planet. Or at least in America, which is rather large and diverse. For me the Everglades is like the deepest forest off the grid in the Rockies, or the vast cracked desert plain of Nevada, or any scene out of Cormac McCarthy. Beautiful, but forbidding. Nay, positively frightening, because the opaque water hides these horrific creatures that will bite off whatever part of your body unfortunate enough to penetrate the surface. 

Not only are there alligators (and crocs, I suppose), but there are also 20 foot pythons that will eat alligators. Or try to, at least. This photo shows what happens when a species is put in an environment to which it is not naturally accomodated: it explodes.

See more incredible photos on Monga Bay (my favorite rainforst/fish/Madagascar photo blog aside from Natty Geo).

Finally, I have to admit I want to tab this as globalization because, well, the global pets market and illegal importation of exotic pets and the ecological damage that results-- it's endemic to the globalized world we've become. We should expect it to reoccur, sort of as collateral damage for the crisscrossing of people and goods (and animals) around the planet. Textbook! That is why the EU has very tough laws about pet transport.

Back to your regularly scheduled programming.